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Trade-offs between defence and other fitness components are expected in principle, and can have major qualitative impacts on ecological dynamics. Here we show that such a trade-off exists even in the simple unicellular alga Chlorella vulgaris. We grew algal populations for multiple generations in either the presence ('grazed algae') or absence ('non-grazed algae') of the grazing rotifer Brachionus calyciflorus, and then evaluated their defence and competitive abilities. Grazed algae were better defended, yielding rotifer growth rate 32% below that of animals fed non-grazed algae, but they also had diminished competitive ability, with a growth rate under nutrient-limiting conditions 28% below that of non-grazed algae. Grazed algae also had a smaller cell size and were more concentrated in carbon and nitrogen. Thus, C. vulgaris genotypes vary phenotypically in their position along a trade-off curve between defence against grazing and competitive ability. This genetic variation underlies rapid algal evolution that significantly alters the ecological predator-prey cycles between rotifers and algae.