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Nature Communications




Article number: 4273

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Genes with identical DNA sequence may show differential expression because of epigenetic marks. Where epigenetic marks respond to past conditions, they represent a form of “memory”. Despite their medical relevance, the impact of memories on the evolution of infectious diseases has rarely been considered. Here we explore the evolution of virulence in pathogens that carry memories of the sex of their previous host. We show that this form of memory provides information about the sex of present and future hosts when the sexes differ in their pathogen’s transmission pattern. Memories of past hosts enable the evolution of greater virulence in infections originating from one sex and infections transmitted across sexes. Thus, our results account for patterns of virulence that have, to date, defied medical explanation. In particular, it has been observed that girls infected by boys (or boys infected by girls) are more likely to die from measles, chickenpox and polio than girls infected by girls (or boys infected by boys). We also evaluate epigenetic therapies that tamper with the memories of infecting pathogens. More broadly, our findings imply that pathogens can be selected to carry memories of past environments other than sex. This identifies new directions in personalised medicine.

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