Irreversible Evolution? Dust Mites Show Parasites Can Violate Dollo’s Law

By Christie Wilcox | March 8, 2013 5:00 pm

A scanning electron microscope image of an American house dust mite.

Our world is quite literally lousy with parasites. We are hosts to hundreds of them, and they are so common that in some ecosystems, the total mass of them can outweigh top predators by 20 fold. Even parasites have parasites. It’s such a good strategy that over 40% of all known species are parasitic. They steal genes from their hosts, take over other animals’ bodies, and generally screw with their hosts’ heads. But there’s one thing that we believed they couldn’t do: stop being parasites. Once the genetic machinery set the lifestyle choice in motion, there’s supposed to be no going back to living freely. Once a parasite, always a parasite.

Unless you’re a mite.

In evolutionary biology, the notion of irreversibility is known as Dollo’s Law after the Belgian paleontologist that first hypothesized it in 1893. He stated that once a lineage had lost or modified organs or structures, that they couldn’t turn back the clock and un-evolve those changes. Or, as he put it, “an organism is unable to return, even partially, to a previous stage already realized in the ranks of its ancestors.”

While some animals seem to challenge Dollo’s Law, it has long been a deeply held belief in the field of parasitology. Parasitism is, in general, a process of reduction. Adjusting to survival on or in another animal is a severe evolutionary undertaking, and many parasites lose entire organs or even body systems, becoming entirely dependent on their hosts to perform biological tasks like breaking down food or locomotion. Parasitology textbooks often talk about the irreversibility of becoming a parasite in very finite terms. “Parasites as a whole are worthy examples of the inexorable march of evolution into blind alleys” says Noble & Noble’s 1976 Parasitology: the Biology of Animal Parasites. Robert Poulin is even more direct: “Once they are dependent on the host there is no going back. In other words, early specialisation for a parasitic life commits a lineage forever.”

Now, parasites are proving that not only can they evade immune systems, trick other animals, and use their hosts’ bodies in hundreds of nefarious ways, some can go back to living on their own. This is exactly what scientists now believed happened in the Pyroglyphidae — the dust mites.

Mites, as a whole, are a frighteningly successful if often overlooked group of organisms. More than 48,000 species have been described. These minuscule relatives of spiders can be found worldwide in just about every habitat you can imagine. Many are free-living, but there are also a number of parasitic species, including all-too-familiar pests like Sarcoptes scabiei, the mite which causes scabies. Exactly how the different groups of mites are related to each other, however, has been a hot topic of debate amongst mite biologists. Though the closest relatives of dust mites are the Psoroptidia, a large and diverse parasitic group of mites, many have argued that dust mites came from free-living ancestors — ‘living fossils’ of a sort, the only surviving line of ancestral free-living mites that later gave rise to parasites. In fact, Pavel Klimov and Barry O’Connor from the University of Michigan were able to find 62 different hypothesis as to how the free-living the dust mites fit into the mite family tree. Sixty-two, the team decided, was simply too many. So, they turned to the mites’ genes.

To test which of the hypotheses had the most merit, Klimov and O’Conner conscripted a team of 64 biologists in 19 countries to obtain over 700 mite specimens, which they then used to construct a mite family tree. They sequenced five nuclear genes from each species, then applied statistical analyses to construct a tree of relationships called a phylogeny. And that’s when they saw it: deeply nested inside a large group of parasites were our everyday, non-parasitic, allergy-causing dust mites.

The phylogeny of mites showing the free-living dust mites evolving out of the parasitic Psoroptidia

“This result was so surprising that we decided to contact our colleagues to obtain their feedback prior to sending these data for publication,” said lead author Pavel Klimov. “Parasites can quickly evolve highly sophisticated mechanisms for host exploitation and can lose their ability to function away from the host body,” he explained. “Many researchers in the field perceive such specialization as evolutionarily irreversible.” But, their data were clear. “All our analyses conclusively demonstrated that house dust mites have abandoned a parasitic lifestyle, secondarily becoming free-living.”

Their data also shed light on how these mites could have accomplished such a reversal. The team found that parasitic traits actually may have facilitated the switch back to living freely. The closest relatives of dust mites have several traits in common: they are able to tolerate low humidity, possess digestive enzymes that can break down tough materials like skin and keratin, and are less specific about which host they live on than other mites. It’s likely that the early free-living ancestors of dust mites were able to use these traits to switch from living on animals to living in their nests, eventually finding their way into our homes.

The notion that dust mites were once parasites also explains why they are such a strong allergic trigger. “One would expect this feature to be present only in true parasites, having a direct contact with the host immune system,” explain the authors. The authors hope that properly placing the Pyroglyphidae in the mite family tree will inform other scientists studying their public health importance. “Our study is an example of how asking a purely academic question may result in broad practical applications,” said O’Connor. “Knowing phylogenetic relationships of house dust mites may provide insights into allergenic properties of their immune-response-triggering proteins and the evolution of genes encoding allergens.” The hope is that such research could lead to better allergy treatments, which would be welcomed by the over a billion people who suffer from dust mite allergies. Dust mites are the number one cause of allergic symptoms worldwide, and are particularly bad for asthma patients, with upwards of 90% of them sensitive to the microscopic critters.

While this isn’t the first time that Dollo’s Law has been questioned, it’s the first strong evidence that parasitism might not be the evolutionary “blind alley” we tend to describe it as. The more scientists use genetics to study the evolutionary relationships between organisms, the more they find that Dollo’s Law is less law-like than once thought, broadening our understanding of evolution as a whole and challenging our assumptions about how it works. Which is, really, the brilliance and beauty of science — like life on this Earth, our understanding of the universe is constantly adapting and evolving.


Citation: Klimov P.B. & OConnor B. Is Permanent Parasitism Reversible? – Critical Evidence from Early Evolution of House Dust Mites, Systematic Biology, DOI:

Image credit: Dust mite courtesy of G. Bauchan and R. Ochoa, phylogeny from the paper

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, select, Top Posts
  • kate s

    My sociology college teacher said that you start research with a premise and if your research shows the opposite, well and good.

    • m12345

      Yes science is always about disproving, and never about proving. Experiments which prove are probably 99% fallible. Experiments trying to disprove are probably 99% accurate.

  • m12345

    Who the hell is dollo some ignorant fool from the 1600’s?

    Evolution is about efficiency, do more, have more. Going back an evolutionary stage is no harder than going forward. But each step back would get exponentially harder to achieve unless forced that way.

  • SixSixSix

    I think the interesting observation here may be that looking at phenotypes (physical expression) only can be very misleading on a species level as well as individual level. Just because an ancestral feature is “missing” does not mean it has been eliminated from the genome. It may be suppressed.

    Chickens have teeth. The genes are simply turned off by the genetic controls in what heretofore was incorrectly considered “junk” DNA. Turning that off is pretty widespread across all birds, but they have teeth latent in their genes. Try hard enough and you probably can produce humans with gills (ethics aside) as the fetus progresses through such a stage. Oh my, Waterworld may have been a terrible movie, but not so far off the mark.

  • CitrusRain

    Ocean dries up over a few hundred years, fish develop lungs.
    Planet floods over another few hundred years, things that evolved from fish re-evolve into aquatic beings like their ancestors.

    What’s so hard about that? It’s like… those disproven things you learn about in grade school that are common sense. The earth is flat, and the center of the universe. You create animals by leaving food sit in a corner. Projectiles move in a straight line until they run out of energy, and then drop vertically to the ground.

  • Mister Bee

    Assuming there is a recessive gene for parasitism how many gernerations might it take for dust mites to become huiman parasites given the appropraite conditions?

  • Kieron Seymour-Howell

    Really, humans, are also parasites.

    I once read an amusing anecdote that said if you wanted to disrupt an alien world, just set up a human colony there and wait for the havoc and mayhem to start. We are alpha parasites. *laughs* We are incredibly adaptive and resourceful, we breed easily, we absorb and use most of the resources we encounter. We also tend to pollute the environment to that other species cannot live there.

    The main species we have symbiotic relationships with, are cockroaches and mites. Other species are more damaged by humans, than actually benefit, unlike most other species that play a balanced part of an ecology. The only ones that actually are arguably benefiting, we have somehow steered or created through manipulation of the natural environment, like some domestic livestock and pets. It is interesting and unlikely that nature would have allowed us to reach this point. Humanity is more like a virus infecting a host, than a creature within a healthy biosphere.


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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.


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