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Heredity (Edinb). 2008 May;100(5):484-8. doi: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6801093. Epub 2008 Jan 23.

Kin selection and the evolution of virulence.

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Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


Social interactions between conspecific parasites are partly dependent on the relatedness of interacting parasites (kin selection), which, in turn, is predicted to affect the extent of damage they cause their hosts (virulence). High relatedness is generally assumed to favour less competitive interactions, but the relationship between relatedness and virulence is crucially dependent on the social behaviour in question. Here, we discuss the rather limited body of experimental work that addresses how kin-selected social behaviours affect virulence. First, if prudent use of host resources (a form of cooperation) maximizes the transmission success of the parasite population, decreased relatedness is predicted to result in increased host exploitation and virulence. Experimental support for this well-established theoretical result is surprisingly limited. Second, if parasite within-host growth rate is a positive function of cooperation (that is, when individuals need to donate public goods, such as extracellular enzymes), virulence is predicted to increase with increasing relatedness. The limited studies testing this hypothesis are broadly consistent with this prediction. Finally, there is some empirical evidence supporting theory that suggests that spiteful behaviours are maximized at intermediate degrees of relatedness, which, in turn, leads to minimal virulence because of the reduced growth rate of the infecting population. We highlight the need for further thorough experimentation on the role of kin selection in the evolution of virulence and identify additional biological complexities to these simple frameworks.

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