The effect of disease life history on the evolutionary emergence of novel pathogens

Proc Biol Sci. 2005 Sep 22;272(1575):1949-56. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3170.


We present a general analytical result for the probability that a newly introduced pathogen will evolve adaptations that allow it to maintain itself within any novel host population, as a function of disease life-history parameters. We demonstrate that this probability of "evolutionary emergence" depends on two key properties of the disease life history: (i) the basic reproduction number and (ii) the expected duration of an infection. These parameters encapsulate all of the relevant information and can be combined in a very simple expression, with estimates for the rates of adaptive mutation, to predict the probability of emergence for any novel pathogen. In general, diseases that initially have a large reproductive number and/or that cause relatively long infections are the most prone to evolutionary adaptation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Communicable Diseases*
  • Disease Transmission, Infectious
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Probability
  • Reproduction / genetics
  • Time Factors
  • Virulence / genetics
  • Virulence / physiology