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Biology of pathogenic microorganisms 

Biology of pathogenic microorganisms

Chapter:
Biology of pathogenic microorganisms
Author(s):

Duncan J. Maskell

DOI:
10.1093/med/9780199204854.003.070101_update_001

Update:

Influenza pandemic—minor impact because of relatively low virulence.

Whole genome sequencing of clinical isolates—likely impact on clinical practice illustrated by pneumococcus and MRSA.

Updated on 31 May 2012. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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date: 26 March 2017

Microorganisms are present at most imaginable sites on the planet, and have evolved to occupy these ecological niches successfully. A host animal is simply another ecological niche to be occupied.

The ability to cause disease may in some cases be an accidental bystander event, or it may be the result of evolutionary processes that have led to specific mechanisms allowing the pathogen to exploit the rich source of nutrients present in the host, before moving on to another fresh host.

Pathogenicity often relies on a series of steps, with specific and often distinct mechanisms operating at each of them. Some types of pathogen must adapt to the host environment by altering gene expression, and all must retain the ability to be transmitted readily between hosts. Specific mechanisms have evolved in microorganisms for the exploitation of the host and for evasion or avoidance of the innate and acquired immune systems.

The advent and application of hyper-rapid and ultra-high throughput whole-genome scale sequencing technologies is providing a mass of information, which—when sensibly and carefully gathered and used—will change fundamentally our way of looking at infectious diseases and our understanding of how pathogens work. This should enable the development of new intervention strategies, especially vaccines and antimicrobials, but the complexity of some of the biological mechanisms involved may make this a difficult exercise. Furthermore, pathogens may vary and evolve rapidly, and thus are likely to remain one step ahead of these strategies.

We live in a rapidly changing world. New pathogens will emerge to exploit new circumstances presented by changes in society, and ancient scourges will remain and re-emerge to plague us. Many of the new infectious disease challenges will arise from animals, and will be zoonoses, at least in the early stages of their emergence. It is therefore probably more important in this field than in any other to develop the vision of ‘One Medicine’, with medical and veterinary clinicians and basic scientists working together, if we are to give ourselves the best chance of success in warding off threats from global infectious diseases.

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