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Q Rev Biol. 1996 Mar;71(1):37-78.

Models of parasite virulence.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Irvine 92717, USA.


Several evolutionary processes influence virulence, the amount of damage a parasite causes to its host. For example, parasites are favored to exploit their hosts prudently to prolong infection and avoid killing the host. Parasites also need to use some host resources to reproduce and transmit infections to new hosts. Thus parasites face a tradeoff between prudent exploitation and rapid reproduction-a life history tradeoff between longevity and fecundity. Other tradeoffs among components of parasite fitness also influence virulence. For example, competition among parasite genotypes favors rapid growth to achieve greater relative success within the host. Rapid growth may, however, lower the total productivity of the local group by overexploiting the host, which is a potentially renewable food supply. This is a problem of kin selection and group selection. I summarize models of parasite virulence with the theoretical tools of life history analysis, kin selection, and epidemiology. I then apply the theory to recent empirical studies and models of virulence. These applications, to nematodes, to the extreme virulence of hospital epidemics, and to bacterial meningitis, show the power of simple life history theory to highlight interesting questions and to provide a rich array of hypotheses. These examples also show the kinds of conceptual mistakes that commonly arise when only a few components of parasite fitness are analysed in isolation. The last part of the article connects standard models of parasite virulence to diverse topics, such as the virulence of bacterial plasmids, the evolution of genomes, and the processes that influenced conflict and cooperation among the earliest replicators near the origin of life.

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