Open Access Research article

Starvation can diversify the population structure and virulence strategies of an environmentally transmitting fish pathogen

Lotta-Riina Sundberg12*, Heidi M T Kunttu1 and E Tellervo Valtonen1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Jyväskylä, Po box 35, FI-40014 Jyväskylä, Finland

2 Centre of Excellence in Biological Interactions, University of Jyväskylä, Po box 35, FI-40014 Jyväskylä, Finland

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BMC Microbiology 2014, 14:67  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-14-67

Published: 14 March 2014



Generalist bacterial pathogens, with the ability for environmental survival and growth, often face variable conditions during their outside-host period. Abiotic factors (such as nutrient deprivation) act as selection pressures for bacterial characteristics, but their effect on virulence is not entirely understood. “Sit and wait” hypothesis expects that long outside-host survival selects for increased virulence, but maintaining virulence in the absence of hosts is generally expected to be costly if active investments are needed. We analysed how long term starvation influences bacterial population structure and virulence of an environmentally transmitting fish pathogen Flavobacterium columnare.


F. columnare populations in distilled water and in lake water were monitored for 5 months. During the experiment, the population structure of F. columnare diversified by rough and soft colony morphotypes appearing among the ancestral rhizoid ones. After 5 months starvation in lake water, the virulence of the starved and ancestral bacterial isolates was tested. The starved rhizoid isolates had significantly higher virulence than the ancestral rhizoid, whereas the virulence of the rough isolates was low.


We suggest that F. columnare population diversification is an adaptation to tolerate unpredictable environment, but may also have other biological significance. Maintaining and increasing virulence ensures efficient invasion into the host especially under circumstances when the host density is low or the outside-host period is long. Changing from rhizoid into a rough morphotype has trade-offs in making bacteria less virulent and unable to exploit the host, but may ensure bacterial survival under unpredictable conditions. Our study gives an example how abiotic selection can diversify virulence of environmentally transmitting bacterial pathogen.

Flavobacterium columnare; Starvation; Trade-off; Transmission; Virulence