Host competence: An organismal trait to integrate immunology and epidemiology


The new fields of ecological immunology and disease ecology have begun to merge, and the classic fields of immunology and epidemiology are beginning to blend with them. This merger is occurring because the integrative study of host-parasite interactions is providing insights into disease in ways that traditional methods have not. With the advent of new tools, mathematical and technological, we could be on the verge of developing a unified theory of infectious disease, one that supersedes the barriers of jargon and tradition. Here we argue that a cornerstone of any such synthesis will be host competence, the propensity of an individual host to generate new infections in other susceptible hosts. In the last few years, the emergence of systems immunology has led to novel insight into how hosts control or eliminate pathogens. Most such efforts have stopped short of considering transmission and the requisite behaviors of infected individuals that mediate it, and few have explicitly incorporated ecological and evolutionary principles. Ultimately though, we expect that the use of a systems immunology perspective will help link suborganismal processes (i.e., health of hosts and selection on genes) to superorganismal outcomes (i.e., community-level disease dynamics and host-parasite coevolution). Recently, physiological regulatory networks (PRNs) were cast as whole-organism regulatory systems that mediate homeostasis and hence link suborganismal processes with the fitness of individuals. Here, we use the PRN construct to develop a roadmap for studying host competence, taking guidance from systems immunology and evolutionary ecology research. We argue that PRN variation underlies heterogeneity in individual host competence and hence host-parasite dynamics.

Publication Title

Integrative and Comparative Biology