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Infection, Genetics and Evolution
Volume 86, 2020, 104611

The evolution of bacterial pathogens in the Anthropocene

Michiel Vos

European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School, Environment and Sustainability Institute, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE, UK.


Humankind has become a primary driver of global environmental and climate change. The extent of planetary change is such that it has been proposed to classify the current geological age as the ‘Anthropocene’. Anthropogenic environmental degradation presents numerous threats to human health and wellbeing, including an increased risk of infectious disease. This review focuses on how processes such as pollution, climate change and human-mediated dispersal could affect the evolution of bacterial pathogens. Effects of environmental change on the ‘big five’ of evolution: mutation rate, recombination (horizontal gene transfer), migration, selection and drift are discussed. Microplastic pollution is used as a case study to highlight the combined effects of some of these processes on the evolutionary diversification of human pathogens. Although the evidence is still incomplete, a picture is emerging that environmental pathogens could evolve at increased rates in the Anthropocene, with potential consequences for human infection.

Keywords: Anthropocene, Pathogens, Climate change, Pollution, Plastisphere, Horizontal gene transfer.

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