At the heart of tackling the huge challenge posed by infectious micro-organisms is the overwhelming need to understand their nature. A major question is, why do some species of bacteria rapidly kill their host whilst others are relatively benign? For example, Yersinia pestis, the causative organism of plague, is a highly virulent human pathogen whilst the closely related Yersinia pseudotuberculosis causes a much less severe disease. Using molecular techniques such as mutating certain genes, microbiologists have made significant advances over recent decades in elucidating the mechanisms that govern the production of virulence factors involved in causing disease in many bacterial species. There are also evolutionary and ecological factors which will influence virulence. Many of these ideas have arisen through the development of evolutionary theory and yet there is strikingly little empirical evidence testing them. By applying both mechanistic and adaptive approaches to microbial behaviours we can begin to address questions such as, what factors influence cooperation and the evolution of virulence in microbes and can we exploit these factors to develop new antimicrobial strategies?