Contrasting evolution of virulence and replication rate in an emerging bacterial pathogen
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Host resistance through immune clearance is predicted to favor pathogens that are able to transmit faster and are hence more virulent. Increasing pathogen virulence is, in turn, typically assumed to be mediated by increasing replication rates. However, experiments designed to test how pathogen virulence and replication rates evolve in response to increasing host resistance, as well as the relationship between the two, are rare and lacking for naturally evolving host-pathogen interactions. We inoculated 55 isolates of Mycoplasma gallisepticum, collected over 20 y from outbreak, into house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) from disease-unexposed populations, which have not evolved protective immunity to M. gallisepticum. We show using 3 different metrics of virulence (body mass loss, symptom severity, and putative mortality rate) that virulence has increased linearly over > 150,000 bacterial generations since outbreak (1994 to 2015). By contrast, while replication rates increased from outbreak to the initial spread of resistance (1994 to 2004), no further increases have occurred subsequently (2007 to 2015). Finally, as a consequence, we found that any potential mediating effect of replication rate on virulence evolution was restricted to the period when host resistance was initially increasing in the population. Taken together, our results show that pathogen virulence and replication rates can evolve independently, particularly after the initial spread of host resistance. We hypothesize that the evolution of pathogen virulence can be driven primarily by processes such as immune manipulation after resistance spreads in host populations.