Pesticides and parasites add up to an evolutionary Catch-22

When Daphnia evolve resistance to pesticides, they become more vulnerable to bacterial parasites. Photo by Chantal Wagner.

ResearchBlogging.orgIf you haven’t read Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22, cancel your plans for next weekend and spend the time with a copy from the nearest library. It’s a hilarious, bracingly bleak satire of military bureaucracy, as epitomized in the titular clause governing when bomber pilots can be grounded for reason of insanity:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.

Heller conceived Catch-22 as a product of malicious middle management, but a similar situation crops up in the natural world when living things are under natural selection from conditions that favor contradictory traits. Biologists most commonly call these tradeoffs.

Over the course of evolution, tradeoffs set up “choices” that natural selection must make—a population can adapt to one alternative set of conditions, or another, or settle on a middle ground. A trivial example is that elephants have long ago “chosen” not to fly (Dumbo notwithstanding) in the course of evolving large, un-aerodynamic bodies suitable for massive-scale herbivory. A more relevant example is a new finding that the evolution of pesticide resistance creates vulnerability to parasites [$a].

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated [PDF] that in 2006 and 2007 (the latest years for which reports are online) we used upwards of five billion pounds of pesticides to kill unwanted plants, insects, fungi, and other organisms worldwide. Once they’re sprayed, we don’t have much control over where pesticides end up—rain runoff takes them into lakes, ponds, and the ocean. In those bodies of water, critters at the base of the food chain are the first to feel the effects—critters like the tiny, translucent crustacean Daphnia magna.

Of course, those critters may be able to evolve resistance to the pesticides contaminating their environment—but that resistance may come at a cost.

Pesticide application, via the most picturesque method available. Photo by Scott Butner.

Anja Coors and Luc De Meester had already found a hint of this cost [$a] in an experiment using a single clonal line of Daphnia, in which Daphnia exposed to both sublethal concentrations of the widely-used insecticide carbaryl and a parasitic bacterium fared much worse than Daphnia exposed to only carbaryl or bacteria.

In the new study, Coors, De Meester, and three collaborators expand on that initial observation by determining whether Daphnia become more vulnerable to parasites as they evolve resistance to carbaryl, and whether this costly evolution could occur in natural populations. The coauthors took samples of Daphnia from natural populations in four separate lakes and exposed them to carbaryl over several generations—then sampled the resultant evolved populations and tested their vulnerability to the bacterium. Compared to Daphnia left unexposed to carbaryl, the evolved populations were more resistant to the pesticide—and were also more badly hurt by bacterial infection.

It’s hard to say how general this particular result is to the many, many other species that, like Daphnia, must cope with pesticides and other pollutants humans have introduced into the environment. Evolution to resist one pesticide leads to lowered resistance to infection in one aquatic crustacean; in other species, facing different chemicals, maybe such costs are different or lesser or nonexistent. But living things are not infinitely pliable as they evolve in response to the many and rapid changes we’re making in the world. To slow the extinction crisis going on around us, we need to avoid trapping other living things in Catch-22.


Coors, A., & De Meester, L. (2008). Synergistic, antagonistic and additive effects of multiple stressors: predation threat, parasitism and pesticide exposure in Daphnia magna.Journal of Applied Ecology, 45 (6), 1820-8 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01566.x

Jansen, M., Stoks, R., Coors, A., van Doorslaer, W., & de Meester, L. (2011). Collateral damage: Rapid exposure-induced evolution of pesticide resistance leads to increased susceptibility to parasites. Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01331.x