Modeling the potential impact of host population survival on the evolution of M. tuberculosis latency.


Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease with a peculiar feature: Upon infection with the causative agent, Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (MTB), most hosts enter a latent state during which no transmission of MTB to new hosts occurs. Only a fraction of latently infected hosts develop TB disease and can potentially infect new hosts. At first glance, this seems like a waste of transmission potential and therefore an evolutionary suboptimal strategy for MTB. It might be that the human immune response keeps MTB in check in most hosts, thereby preventing it from achieving its evolutionary optimum. Another possible explanation is that long latency and progression to disease in only a fraction of hosts are evolutionary beneficial to MTB by allowing it to persist better in small host populations. Given that MTB has co-evolved with human hosts for millenia or longer, it likely encountered small host populations for a large share of its evolutionary history and had to evolve strategies of persistence. Here, we use a mathematical model to show that indeed, MTB persistence is optimal for an intermediate duration of latency and level of activation. The predicted optimal level of activation is above the observed value, suggesting that human co-evolution has lead to host immunity, which keeps MTB below its evolutionary optimum.

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