Understanding the processes that shape the genetic structure of parasite populations and the functional consequences of different parasite genotypes is critical for our ability to predict how an infection can spread through a host population and for the design of effective vaccines to combat infection and disease. Here, we examine how the genetic structure of parasite populations responds to host genetic heterogeneity. We consider the well-characterized molecular specificity of major histocompatibility complex binding of antigenic peptides to derive deterministic and stochastic models. We use these models to ask, firstly, what conditions favour the evolution of generalist parasite genotypes versus specialist parasite genotypes? Secondly, can parasite genotypes coexist in a population? We find that intragenomic interactions between parasite loci encoding antigenic peptides are pivotal in determining the outcome of evolution. Where parasite loci interact synergistically (i.e. the recognition of additional antigenic peptides has a disproportionately large effect on parasite fitness), generalist parasite genotypes are favoured. Where parasite loci act multiplicatively (have independent effects on fitness) or antagonistically (have diminishing effects on parasite fitness), specialist parasite genotypes are favoured. A key finding is that polymorphism is not stable and that, with respect to functionally important antigenic peptides, parasite populations are dominated by a single genotype
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