A fundamental goal in infection biology is to understand the emergence of variation in pathogen virulence-here defined as the decrease in host fitness caused by a pathogen. To uncover the sources of such variation, virulence can be decomposed into both host- and pathogen-associated components. However, decomposing virulence can be challenging owing to complex within-host pathogen dynamics such as bifurcating infections, which recently received increased empirical and theoretical attention. Bifurcating infections are characterized by the emergence of two distinct infection types: (i) terminal infections with high pathogen loads resulting in rapid host death, and (ii) persistent infections with lower loads and delayed host death. Here, we propose to use discrete mixture models to perform separate virulence decompositions for each infection type. Using this approach, we reanalysed a recently published experimental dataset on bacterial load and survival in Drosophila melanogaster. This analysis revealed several advantages of the new approach, most importantly the generation of a more comprehensive picture of the varying sources of virulence in different bacterial species. Beyond this application, our approach could provide valuable information for ground-truthing and improving theoretical models of within-host infection dynamics, which are developed to predict variation in infection outcome and pathogen virulence.
Keywords: bifurcating infections; mixture model; pathogen virulence; virulence decomposition.