The emergence of latent infection in the early evolution of Mycobacterium tuberculosis Academic Article uri icon


  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis has an unusual natural history in that the vast majority of its human hosts enter a latent state that is both non-infectious and devoid of any symptoms of disease. From the pathogen perspective, it seems counterproductive to relinquish reproductive opportunities to achieve a détente with the host immune response. However, a small fraction of latent infections reactivate to the disease state. Thus, latency has been argued to provide a safe harbour for future infections which optimizes the persistence of M. tuberculosis in human populations. Yet, if a pathogen begins interactions with humans as an active disease without latency, how could it begin to evolve latency properties without incurring an immediate reproductive disadvantage? We address this question with a mathematical model. Results suggest that the emergence of tuberculosis latency may have been enabled by a mechanism akin to cryptic genetic variation in that detrimental latency properties were hidden from natural selection until their expression became evolutionarily favoured.

publication date

  • 2016