Emerging infectious diseases are a persistent threat to humans and food production but the mechanisms promoting the emergence of novel pathogens are not fully understood. The widely discussed explanations for pathogen emergence include range shifts, coincidental evolution of virulence, and host immunity variation. Here we propose a novel mechanism of virulence evolution that relies on environmental variability. Our model combines an environmental community experiencing random or periodic variability, to a classical SIR epidemiological model. We assume that environmentally growing, potentially infective variants arise at low frequency from a resident, non-infective (benign microbial) strain through random variation on genetic material. We found that environmental perturbations commonly promote establishment of sporadic infections or persistent epidemics, by creating transient periods of low competition, which can in turn be exploited by an infective strain. Given the ubiquitous nature of potentially pathogenic environmental micro-organisms and environmental variability, this mechanism provides a plausible explanation for emerging diseases.
- 1181 Ekologi, evolutionsbiologi