The curse of the Pharaoh revisited: evolutionary bi-stability in environmentally transmitted pathogens.


It is increasingly evident that for a number of high-profile pathogens, transmission involves both direct and environmental pathways. Much of the distinguished evolutionary theory has, however, focused on each of transmission component separately. Herein, we use the framework of adaptive dynamics to study the evolutionary consequences of mixed transmission. We find that environmental transmission can select for increased virulence when direct transmission is low. Increasing the efficiency of direct transmission gives rise to an evolutionary bi-stability, with coexistence of different levels of virulence. We conclude that the overlooked contribution of environmental transmission may explain the curious appearance of high virulence in pathogens that are typically only moderately pathogenic, as observed for avian influenza viruses and cholera.

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