Epidemiology and Infection

Research Article

Waterborne transmission and the evolution of virulence among gastrointestinal bacteria

P. W. Ewalda1

a1 Department of Biology, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002, USA


Diarrhoeal diseases are primary contributors to millions of deaths annually. Yet, little is known about the evolutionary reasons for the differences in virulence among gastrointestinal pathogens. Applying the comparative, cost/benefit approach of evolutionary biology this paper proposes that waterborne transmission should favour evolution towards high virulence. This hypothesis is supported by a cross-specific test, which shows that waterborne transmission is strongly correlated with the virulence of bacterial gastrointestinal pathogens of humans. Alternative explanations of this correlation are not supported by available data. These findings bear on public health policy because they draw attention to a previously unrecognized long-range benefit gained from purification of water supplies: diarrhoeal pathogens may evolve to lower levels of virulence.

(Accepted July 10 1990)