Study finds key distinction between outbreaks that die out and epidemics

February 21, 2006

In an important study forthcoming in the March 2006 issue of the American Naturalist, biologists from Yale University, University of Florida, and Dartmouth College explore the dynamics of pathogen survival and shed new light on a longstanding mystery: why some infectious diseases are limited to small outbreaks and others become full-blown epidemics.

"The capacity of a virus to propagate upon a novel host apparently is conditional on the recent experience of preceding generations," explain John J. Dennehy (Yale University), Nicholas A. Friedenberg (Dartmouth College), Robert D. Holt (University of Florida), and Paul E. Turner (Yale University). "This is intrinsically interesting, suggesting a kind of complexity in pathogen population dynamics that has not been widely regarded."

The researchers observed viral populations on host bacteria, specifically situations where virus populations were sustained on the original hosts, but went extinct on the new hosts. Observing transmission rates, they found that viruses previously reared on an original host showed greater productivity on the new host than viruses previously reared on the new host.

"In this critical region, periodic exposure to native hosts allowed the viruses to survive on novel hosts, an unanticipated result," explain the authors.

The researchers infer that the mechanism behind this phenomenon may be the "host-legacy" effect. If this is the case, according to the authors, the total viral population experiencing the new environment is greater than previously expected, allowing for increased chances of adaptive evolution to the new host.
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Founded in 1867, The American Naturalist is one of the world's most renowned, peer-reviewed publications in ecology, evolution, and population and integrative biology research. AN emphasizes sophisticated methodologies and innovative theoretical syntheses--all in an effort to advance the knowledge of organic evolution and other broad biological principles.

Dennehy, John J., Nicholas A. Friedenberg, Robert D. Holt, and Paul E. Turner. "Viral ecology and the maintenance of novel host use," The American Naturalist 167:3.

University of Chicago Press Journals

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