Vertical transmission does not always lead to benign pathogen-host associations

George Shillcock, Francisco Úbeda, Geoff Wild

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Understanding the capacity of pathogens to cause severe disease is of fundamental importance to human health and the preservation of biodiversity. Many of those pathogens are not only transmitted horizontally between unrelated hosts, but also vertically between parents and their progeny. It is widely accepted that vertical transmission leads to the evolution of less virulent pathogens, but this idea stems from research that neglects the evolutionary response of hosts. Here, we use a game-theory model of co-evolution between pathogen and host to show that vertical transmission does not always lead to more benign pathogens. We highlight scenarios in which vertical transmission results in pathogens exhibiting more virulence. However, we also predict that more benign outcomes are still possible (i) when generating new horizontal infections inflicts too much damage on hosts, (ii) when clearing an infection is too costly for the host, and (iii) when vertical transmission is promoted by a greater growth rate of the host population. Though our work offers a new perspective on the role of vertical transmission in pathogen-host systems, it does agree with previous experimental work.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberqrad028
Number of pages28
JournalEvolution Letters
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2023

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