Unrestricted migration favours virulent pathogens in experimental metapopulations: Evolutionary genetics of a rapacious life history

Christal M. Eshelman, Roxanne Vouk, Jodi L. Stewart, Elizabeth Halsne, Haley A. Lindsey, Stacy Schneider, Miliyard Gualu, Antony M. Dean, Benjamin Kerr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Understanding pathogen infectivity and virulence requires combining insights from epidemiology, ecology, evolution and genetics. Although theoretical work in these fields has identified population structure as important for pathogen life-history evolution, experimental tests are scarce. Here, we explore the impact of population structure on life-history evolution in phage T4, a viral pathogen of Escherichia coli. The host-pathogen system is propagated as a metapopulation in which migration between subpopulations is either spatially restricted or unrestricted. Restricted migration favours pathogens with low infectivity and low virulence. Unrestricted migration favours pathogens that enter and exit their hosts quickly, although they are less productive owing to rapid extirpation of the host population. The rise of such 'rapacious' phage produces a 'tragedy of the commons', in which better competitors lower productivity. We have now identified a genetic basis for a rapacious life history. Mutations at a single locus (rI) cause increased virulence and are sufficient to account for a negative relationship between phage competitive ability and productivity. A higher frequency of rI mutants under unrestricted migration signifies the evolution of rapaciousness in this treatment. Conversely, spatially restricted migration favours a more 'prudent' pathogen strategy, in which the tragedy of the commons is averted. As our results illustrate, profound epidemiological and ecological consequences of life-history evolution in a pathogen can have a simple genetic cause. This journal is

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2503-2513
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1552
StatePublished - Aug 27 2010


  • Experimental evolution
  • Life-history evolution
  • Metapopulation
  • Prudence
  • Tragedy of the commons
  • Virulence


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