The evolution of higher virulence during disease emergence has been predicted by theoretical models, but empirical studies of short-term virulence evolution following pathogen emergence remain rare. Here we examine patterns of short-term virulence evolution using archived isolates of the bacterium Mycoplasma gallisepticum collected during sequential emergence events in two geographically distinct populations of the host, the North American house finch (Haemorhous [formerly Carpodacus] mexicanus). We present results from two complementary experiments, one that examines the trend in pathogen virulence in eastern North American isolates over the course of the eastern epidemic (1994-2008), and the other a parallel experiment on Pacific coast isolates of the pathogen collected after M. gallisepticum established itself in western North American house finch populations (2006-2010). Consistent with theoretical expectations regarding short-term or dynamic evolution of virulence, we show rapid increases in pathogen virulence on both coasts following the pathogen's establishment in each host population. We also find evidence for positive genetic covariation between virulence and pathogen load, a proxy for transmission potential, among isolates of M. gallisepticum. As predicted by theory, indirect selection for increased transmission likely drove the evolutionary increase in virulence in both geographic locations. Our results provide one of the first empirical examples of rapid changes in virulence following pathogen emergence, and both the detected pattern and mechanism of positive genetic covariation between virulence and pathogen load are consistent with theoretical expectations. Our study provides unique empirical insight into the dynamics of short-term virulence evolution that are likely to operate in other emerging pathogens of wildlife and humans.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Immunology and Microbiology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)