Royal Society Publishing

Epidemiology and Genetics in the Coevolution of Parasites and Hosts

R. M. May , R. M. Anderson

Abstract

Recent studies suggest that parasites (interpreted broadly to include viruses, bacteria, protozoans and helminths) may influence the numerical magnitude or geographical distribution of their host populations; most of such studies focus on the population biology and epidemiology of the host-parasite association, taking no explicit account of the genetics. Other researchers have explored the possibility that the coevolution of hosts and parasites may be responsible for much of the genetic diversity found in natural populations, and may even be the main reason for sexual reproduction; such genetic studies rarely take accurate account of the density-and frequency-dependent effects associated with the transmission and maintenance of parasitic infections. This paper aims to combine epidemiology and genetics, reviewing the way in which earlier studies fit into a wider scheme and offering some new ideas about host-parasite coevolution. One central conclusion is that `successful' parasites need not necessarily evolve to be harmless: both theory and some empirical evidence (particularly from the myxoma-rabbit system) indicate that many coevolutionary paths are possible, depending on the relation between virulence and transmissibility of the parasite or pathogen.