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The harm that pathogens cause to hosts during infection, termed virulence, varies across species from negligible to a high likelihood of rapid death. Classic theory for the evolution of virulence is based on a trade-off between pathogen growth, transmission and host survival, which predicts that higher within-host growth causes increased transmission and higher virulence. However, using data from 61 human pathogens, we found the opposite correlation to the expected positive correlation between pathogen growth rate and virulence. We found that (i) slower growing pathogens are significantly more virulent than faster growing pathogens, (ii) inhaled pathogens and pathogens that infect via skin wounds are significantly more virulent than pathogens that are ingested, but (iii) there is no correlation between symptoms of infection that aid transmission (such as diarrhoea and coughing) and virulence. Overall, our results emphasize how virulence can be influenced by mechanistic life-history details, especially transmission mode, that determine how parasites infect and exploit their hosts.This article is part of the themed issue 'Opening the black box: re-examining the ecology and evolution of parasite transmission'.

Original publication




Journal article


Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

Publication Date





growth, infective dose, parasites, trade-offs, transmission, virulence, Animals, Biological Evolution, Disease Transmission, Infectious, Host-Parasite Interactions, Humans, Life History Traits, Parasites, Virulence