Intensive fish farming and the evolution of pathogen virulence: the case of columnaris disease in Finland

Proc Biol Sci. 2010 Feb 22;277(1681):593-600. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1659. Epub 2009 Oct 28.


Ecological changes affect pathogen epidemiology and evolution and may trigger the emergence of novel diseases. Aquaculture radically alters the ecology of fish and their pathogens. Here we show an increase in the occurrence of the bacterial fish disease Flavobacterium columnare in salmon fingerlings at a fish farm in northern Finland over 23 years. We hypothesize that this emergence was owing to evolutionary changes in bacterial virulence. We base this argument on several observations. First, the emergence was associated with increased severity of symptoms. Second, F. columnare strains vary in virulence, with more lethal strains inducing more severe symptoms prior to death. Third, more virulent strains have greater infectivity, higher tissue-degrading capacity and higher growth rates. Fourth, pathogen strains co-occur, so that strains compete. Fifth, F. columnare can transmit efficiently from dead fish, and maintain infectivity in sterilized water for months, strongly reducing the fitness cost of host death likely experienced by the pathogen in nature. Moreover, this saprophytic infectiousness means that chemotherapy strongly select for strains that rapidly kill their hosts: dead fish remain infectious; treated fish do not. Finally, high stocking densities of homogeneous subsets of fish greatly enhance transmission opportunities. We suggest that fish farms provide an environment that promotes the circulation of more virulent strains of F. columnare. This effect is intensified by the recent increases in summer water temperature. More generally, we predict that intensive fish farming will lead to the evolution of more virulent pathogens.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aquaculture*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Finland / epidemiology
  • Fish Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Fish Diseases / microbiology*
  • Fish Diseases / transmission
  • Flavobacteriaceae Infections / epidemiology
  • Flavobacteriaceae Infections / transmission
  • Flavobacteriaceae Infections / veterinary*
  • Flavobacterium / pathogenicity*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Salmon*
  • Virulence