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Open Access Research article

Barriers to antigenic escape by pathogens: trade-off between reproductive rate and antigenic mutability

Steven A Frank* and Robin M Bush

Author Affiliations

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Irvine, CA 92697-2525, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:229  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-229

Published: 15 November 2007

Abstract

Background

A single measles vaccination provides lifelong protection. No antigenic variants that escape immunity have been observed. By contrast, influenza continually evolves new antigenic variants, and the vaccine has to be updated frequently with new strains. Both measles and influenza are RNA viruses with high mutation rates, so the mutation rate alone cannot explain the differences in antigenic variability.

Results

We develop a new hypothesis to explain antigenic stasis versus change. We first note that the antigenically static viruses tend to have high reproductive rates and to concentrate infection in children, whereas antigenically variable viruses such as influenza tend to spread more widely across age classes. We argue that, for pathogens in a naive host population that spread more rapidly in younger individuals than in older individuals, natural selection weights more heavily a rise in reproductive rate. By contrast, pathogens that spread more readily among older individuals gain more by antigenic escape, so natural selection weights more heavily antigenic mutability.

Conclusion

These divergent selective pressures on reproductive rate and antigenic mutability may explain some of the observed differences between pathogens in age-class bias, reproductive rate, and antigenic variation.