Protective microbiomes can limit the evolution of host pathogen defense

C. Jessica E. Metcalf, Britt Koskella

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The evolution of host immunity occurs in the context of the microbiome, but little theory exists to predict how resistance against pathogens might be influenced by the need to tolerate and regulate commensal microbiota. We present a general model to explore the optimal investment in host immunity under conditions in which the host can, versus cannot easily distinguish among commensal versus pathogenic bacteria, and when commensal microbiota can, versus cannot protect the host against the impacts of pathogen infection. We find that a loss of immune vigilance associated with innate immunity over evolutionary time can occur due to the challenge of discriminating between pathogenic and other microbe species. Further, we find the greater the protective effect of microbiome species, acting either directly or via competition with a pathogen, or the higher the costs of immunity, the more likely the loss of immune vigilance is. Conversely, this effect can be reversed when pathogens increase host mortality. Generally, the magnitude of costs of immunity required to allow evolution of decreased immune vigilance are predicted to be lowest when microbiome and pathogen species most resemble each other (in terms of host recognition), and when immune effects on the pathogen are weak. Our model framework makes explicit the core trade-offs likely to shape the evolution of immunity in the context of microbiome/pathogen discrimination. We discuss how this informs interpretation of patterns and process in natural systems, including vulnerability to pathogen emergence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)534-543
Number of pages10
JournalEvolution Letters
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Immune discrimination
  • host evolution
  • immunity
  • pathobiome


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