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Indirect Genetic Effects and the Spread of Infectious Disease: Are We Capturing the Full Heritable Variation Underlying Disease Prevalence?

By Debby Lipschutz-Powell, John A. Woolliams, Piter Bijma and Andrea B. Doeschl-Wilson


Reducing disease prevalence through selection for host resistance offers a desirable alternative to chemical treatment. Selection for host resistance has proven difficult, however, due to low heritability estimates. These low estimates may be caused by a failure to capture all the relevant genetic variance in disease resistance, as genetic analysis currently is not taylored to estimate genetic variation in infectivity. Host infectivity is the propensity of transmitting infection upon contact with a susceptible individual, and can be regarded as an indirect effect to disease status. It may be caused by a combination of physiological and behavioural traits. Though genetic variation in infectivity is difficult to measure directly, Indirect Genetic Effect (IGE) models, also referred to as associative effects or social interaction models, allow the estimation of this variance from more readily available binary disease data (infected/non-infected). We therefore generated binary disease data from simulated populations with known amounts of variation in susceptibility and infectivity to test the adequacy of traditional and IGE models. Our results show that a conventional model fails to capture the genetic variation in infectivity inherent in populations with simulated infectivity. An IGE model, on the other hand, does capture some of the variation in infectivity. Comparison with expected genetic variance suggests that there is scope for further methodological improvement, and that potential responses to selection may be greater than values presented here. Nonetheless, selection using an index of estimated direct and indirect breeding values was shown to have a greater genetic selection differential and reduced future disease risk than traditional selection for resistance only. These findings suggest that if genetic variation in infectivity substantially contributes to disease transmission, then breeding designs which explicitly incorporate IGEs might help reduce disease prevalence

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Publisher: Public Library of Science
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