Beyond Mortality: Sterility As a Neglected Component of Parasite Virulence.


Virulence is generally defined as the reduction in host fitness following infection by a parasite (see Box 1 for glossary) [1]. In general, parasite exploitation of host resources may reduce host survival (mortality virulence), decrease host fecundity (sterility virulence), or even have sub-lethal effects that disturb the way individuals interact within a community (morbidity) [2,3]. In fact, the virulence of many parasites involves a combination of these various effects (Box 2). In practice, however, virulence is most often defined as disease-induced mortality [1, 4-6]. This is especially true in the theoretical literature, where the evolution of sterility virulence, morbidity, and mixed strategies of host exploitation have received relatively little attention. While the focus on mortality effects has allowed for easy comparison between models and, thus, rapid advancement of the field, we ask whether these theoretical simplifications have led us to inadvertently minimize the evolutionary importance of host sterilization and secondary virulence effects. As explicit theoretical work on morbidity is currently lacking (but see [7]), our aim in this Opinion piece is to discuss what is understood about sterility virulence evolution, its adaptive potential, and the implications for parasites that utilize a combination of host survival and reproductive resources.

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