Role of stochastic processes in maintaining discrete strain structure in antigenically diverse pathogen populations

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 13;108(37):15504-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102445108. Epub 2011 Aug 29.


Many highly diverse pathogen populations appear to exist stably as discrete antigenic types despite evidence of genetic exchange. It has been shown that this may arise as a consequence of immune selection on pathogen populations, causing them to segregate permanently into discrete nonoverlapping subsets of antigenic variants to minimize competition for available hosts. However, discrete antigenic strain structure tends to break down under conditions where there are unequal numbers of allelic variants at each locus. Here, we show that the inclusion of stochastic processes can lead to the stable recovery of discrete strain structure through loss of certain alleles. This explains how pathogen populations may continue to behave as independently transmitted strains despite inevitable asymmetries in allelic diversity of major antigens. We present evidence for this type of structuring across global meningococcal isolates in three diverse antigens that are currently being developed as vaccine components.

MeSH terms

  • Alleles
  • Antigenic Variation / immunology*
  • Antigens, Bacterial / genetics
  • Antigens, Bacterial / immunology
  • Cross Reactions / immunology
  • Immunity / immunology
  • Models, Biological
  • Neisseria meningitidis / genetics
  • Neisseria meningitidis / growth & development*
  • Neisseria meningitidis / immunology*
  • Stochastic Processes
  • Time Factors


  • Antigens, Bacterial