Multiple infections and the evolution of virulence



Infections that consist of multiple parasite strains or species are common in the wild and are a major public health concern. Theory suggests that these infections have a key influence on the evolution of infectious diseases and, more specifically, on virulence evolution. However, we still lack an overall vision of the empirical support for these predictions. We argue that within-host interactions between parasites largely determine how virulence evolves and that experimental data support model predictions. Then, we explore the main limitation of the experimental study of such ‘mixed infections’, which is that it draws conclusions on evolutionary outcomes from studies conducted at the individual level. We also discuss differences between coinfections caused by different strains of the same species or by different species. Overall, we argue that it is possible to make sense out of the complexity inherent to multiple infections and that experimental evolution settings may provide the best opportunity to further our understanding of virulence evolution.