Within-host competition is an important factor in host-parasite relationships, yet most studies consider interactions involving only single parasite species. We investigated the interaction between a virulent obligate entomopathogenic fungus, Metarhizium anisopliae var. anisopliae, and a normally avirulent, opportunistic fungal pathogen, Aspergillus flavus, in their leaf-cutting ant host, Acromyrmex echinatior. Surprisingly, the latter normally out-competed the former in mixed infections and had enhanced fitness relative to when infecting in isolation. The result is most probably due to Metarhizium inhibiting the host's immune defences, which would otherwise normally prevent infections by Aspergillus. With the host defences negated by the virulent parasite, the avirulent parasite was then able to out-compete its competitor. This result is strikingly similar to that seen in immunocompromised vertebrate hosts and indicates that avirulent parasites may play a more important role in host life histories than is generally realized.
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