Superinfection as a driver of genomic diversification in antigenically variant pathogens

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
James E FutseG H Palmer


A new pathogen strain can penetrate an immune host population only if it can escape immunity generated against the original strain. This model is best understood with influenza viruses, in which genetic drift creates antigenically distinct strains that can spread through host populations despite the presence of immunity against previous strains. Whether this selection model for new strains applies to complex pathogens responsible for endemic persistent infections, such as anaplasmosis, relapsing fever, and sleeping sickness, remains untested. These complex pathogens undergo rapid within-host antigenic variation by using sets of chromosomally encoded variants. Consequently, immunity is developed against a large repertoire of variants, dramatically changing the scope of genetic change needed for a new strain to evade existing immunity and establish coexisting infection, termed strain superinfection. Here, we show that the diversity in the alleles encoding antigenic variants between strains of a highly antigenically variant pathogen was equal to the diversity within strains, reflecting equivalent selection for variants to overcome immunity at the host population level as within an individual host. This diversity among strains resu...Continue Reading


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