Rapid Antagonistic Coevolution in an Emerging Pathogen and Its Vertebrate Host

Camille Bonneaud, Mathieu Giraudeau, Luc Tardy, Molly Staley, Geoffrey E. Hill, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Host-pathogen coevolution is assumed to play a key role in eco-evolutionary processes, including epidemiological dynamics and the evolution of sexual reproduction [1–4]. Despite this, direct evidence for host-pathogen coevolution is exceptional [5–7], particularly in vertebrate hosts. Indeed, although vertebrate hosts have been shown to evolve in response to pathogens or vice versa [8–12], there is little evidence for the necessary reciprocal changes in the success of both antagonists over time [13]. Here, we generate a time-shift experiment to demonstrate adaptive, reciprocal changes in North American house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) and their emerging bacterial pathogen, Mycoplasma gallisepticum [14–16]. Our experimental design is made possible by the existence of disease-exposed and unexposed finch populations, which were known to exhibit equivalent responses to experimental inoculation until the recent spread of genetic resistance in the former [14, 17]. Whereas inoculations with pathogen isolates from epidemic outbreak caused comparable sub-lethal eye swelling in hosts from exposed (hereafter adapted) and unexposed (hereafter ancestral) populations, inoculations with isolates sampled after the spread of resistance were threefold more likely to cause lethal symptoms in hosts from ancestral populations. Similarly, the probability that pathogens successfully established an infection in the primary host and, before inducing death, transmitted to an uninfected sentinel was highest when recent isolates were inoculated in hosts from ancestral populations and lowest when early isolates were inoculated in hosts from adapted populations. Our results demonstrate antagonistic host-pathogen coevolution, with hosts and pathogens displaying increased resistance and virulence in response to each other over time. Bonneaud et al. provide a rare demonstration that hosts and pathogens evolve in response to each other. House finches have evolved increased resistance to their emerging pathogen, while the pathogen has evolved increased virulence in response. Our results have implications for pathogen evolution in response to resistance through antibiotics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2978-2983.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 24 2018


  • bacteria
  • emerging infectious disease
  • evolution of resistance
  • evolution of virulence
  • host shift
  • time-shift experiment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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