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Growth rate, transmission mode and virulence in human pathogens

  • Helen C Leggett
  • Charlie K. Cornwallis
  • Angus Buckling
  • Stuart A. West
Publishing year: 2017-03-05
Language: English
Publication/Series: Royal Society of London. Philosophical Transactions B. Biological Sciences
Volume: 372
Issue: 1719
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Royal Society

Abstract english

The harm that pathogens cause to hosts during infection, termed virulence, varies across species from negligible to a high likelihood of rapid death. Classic theory for the evolution of virulence is based on a trade-off between pathogen growth, transmission and host survival, which predicts that higher within-host growth causes increased transmission and higher virulence. However, using data from 61 human pathogens, we found the opposite correlation to the expected positive correlation between pathogen growth rate and virulence. We found that (i) slower growing pathogens are significantly more virulent than faster growing pathogens, (ii) inhaled pathogens and pathogens that infect via skin wounds are significantly more virulent than pathogens that are ingested, but (iii) there is no correlation between symptoms of infection that aid transmission (such as diarrhoea and coughing) and virulence. Overall, our results emphasize how virulence can be influenced by mechanistic life-history details, especially transmission mode, that determine how parasites infect and exploit their hosts.


  • Microbiology in the medical area
  • Growth
  • Infective dose
  • Parasites
  • Trade-offs
  • Transmission
  • Virulence


  • Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab
  • ISSN: 0962-8436
Charlie Cornwallis
E-mail: charlie [dot] cornwallis [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer


+46 46 222 30 26


Sölvegatan 37, Lund


Research group


Doctoral students and postdocs

PhD students, main supervisor

PhD students, assistant supervisor