For diseases, when it comes to sharing a home, only close relatives will do

Being more generous to close relatives is a common theme in both our daily interactions and our understanding of how organisms resolve conflicts in nature. In a paper from July issue of The American Naturalist, biologists Britt Koskella (Indiana University), Tatiana Giraud (Université Paris-Sud), and Michael Hood (University of Virginia) asked whether similar rules apply to disease-causing microbes. They tried introducing a sexually-transmitted disease of plants, called "anther smut," into hosts that were already infected, and found that strains are more likely to share a host if they are more closely related.

In this way "pathogens seem to interact as we would," says Koskella, "sharing resources with close relatives and being more competitive towards non-relatives."

According to current evolutionary theory, the competition among pathogen strains determines why some diseases cause very severe symptoms, "so it is crucial to understand when and how this competition occurs within the hosts," adds Koskella.

To win host resources away from a non-relative, theory assumes the pathogens will increase exploitation of the host and thus cause more severe symptoms. However, if pathogens share the host most often with close relatives, this evolutionary conflict is decreased, possibly resulting in less harm by overexploitation. Such new insights into how pathogens interact within the host are needed to better understand and confront the harmful effects of diseases.


Founded in 1867, The American Naturalist is one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research. AN emphasizes sophisticated methodologies and innovative theoretical syntheses--all in an effort to advance the knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles.

B. Koskella, T. Giraud, and M. E. Hood, "Pathogen relatedness affects the prevalence of within-host competition." The American Naturalist 167:7.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
    Published on All rights reserved.