Toxoplasma: Bet On Boys

Toxoplasma, that mind-altering, cell-manipulating, all-around awesome parasite that sits in the brains of billions of us, is back in the news. Infection with the parasite raises the chances a woman will have a boy from 51% to 72%. The average ratio of boys to girls at birth is 51%. Women with high levels of antibodies to Toxoplasma, scientists found, have a 72% chance of having a boy. While many effects of Toxoplasma probably have something to do with adaptations that allow the parasite to thrive and spread successfully, this one seems more like a side-effect, albeit a dramatic one.

Source: Guardian Unlimited | Science | Pregnant women infected by cat parasite more likely to give birth to boys, say researchers

Paper abstract here.

[Thanks to BC for the fact-check.

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Something doesn't look right about those numbers. If there are "billions" of us infected, and hey skew the male/female birthrates so much, then why aren't the world's total birthrates more skewed towards boys? In other words:

If we say that 1.2 billion people are infected (20% of the world's population), and those infections are distributed equally among men and women, then 20% of the population should have 72% boys and the other 80% should have 51% boys, leading to an overall boy birthrate of 55%. Further, countries like Brazil (which you say has an infection rate of 66.9% in your other post) should have boy birthrates of 65%. (In contrast, wikipedia says Brazil's boy birthrate is 1.05 male(s)/female, which is 51.2% boys.)

(Wait, I think I might've found the answer. You state that "Infection with the parasite raises the chances a woman will have a boy from 51% to 72%." But, the Guardian article actually says, "They discovered that women whose antibody count was high - suggesting a substantial infection - had a much higher chance of having baby boys. In most populations the birth rate is around 51% boys, but women infected with toxoplasma had up to a 72% chance of a boy." Note the phrases: "whose antibody count was high" rather than simply "infected" and "up to a 72% chance of a boy" rather than "Infection ... raises the chances ... from 51% to 72%.")

Strange, the effect is meaningless in terms of whole population:

Countries with largest number of boys per 100 girls:

China 112
South Korea 108
Portugal 107
Spain 107
Italy 107
While in China one could argue for some political/cultural bias, that is unlikely in southern European countries. I don't know about Korea.

It doesn't seem to be a mediterranean thing:
Algeria 105
Morocco 105
Egipt 105
Libya 105

Some other countries
Russia 106
Greece 106
Germany 106
USA 105
UK 105
France 105
Brazil 105
Mexico 105
Angola 105
India 105

France and Brazil are among the highest rates of infection, yet they rank with the lowest boy ratios.

(values from the cia factbook, I'm not sure how reliable they are).

Hmmm. The France and Brazil figures suggest that perhaps some other effect of carrying a high load of the parasite serves to (at some slightly higher rate) impair (some other aspect of reproduction) for the most-infected women?

Curiouser and curiouser.

By Steviepinhead (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

That is one weird bug there.

Although it is not significant recently, the male preference is widespread in South Korea.

I think the male bias could serve adaptive value for Toxoplasma. In polygynous mammals, it is known that male offspring disperse further distance than females. Since Toxoplasma can be transmitted vertically, the male biased sex ratio of host's offspring may help its dispersion. In addition, dispersing individuals are more often exposed to predators. Toxoplasma alters the sex of intermediate host's offspring for finding new habitats and new hosts?

By Seokha Kang (not verified) on 13 Oct 2006 #permalink

How long until we hear of, ahem, entrepeneurs offering toxoplasma injections for women in India & China (where sons are still at a premium compared to daughters)?

And is there any chance that such concoctions might yield the promised results?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 20 Oct 2006 #permalink