Quantifying mechanisms of coexistence in disease ecology

Andrew J. Sieben, Joseph R. Mihaljevic, Lauren G. Shoemaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Pathogen coexistence depends on ecological processes operating at both within and between-host scales, making it difficult to quantify which processes may promote or prevent coexistence. Here, we propose that adapting modern coexistence theory—traditionally applied in plant communities—to pathogen systems provides an exciting approach for examining mechanisms of coexistence operating across different spatial scales. We first overview modern coexistence theory and its mechanistic decomposition; we subsequently adapt the framework to quantify how spatial variation in pathogen density, host resources and immunity, and their interaction may promote pathogen coexistence. We apply this derivation to an example two pathogen, multiscale model comparing two scenarios with generalist and strain-specific immunity: one with demographic equivalency among pathogens and one with demographic trade-offs among pathogens. We then show how host–pathogen feedbacks generate spatial heterogeneity that promote pathogen coexistence and decompose those mechanisms to quantify how each spatial heterogeneity contributes to that coexistence. Specifically, coexistence of demographically equivalent pathogens occurs due to spatial variation in host resources, immune responses, and pathogen aggregation. With a competition–colonization trade-off, the superior colonizer requires spatial heterogeneity to coexist, whereas the superior competitor does not. Finally, we suggest ways forward for linking theory and empirical tests of coexistence in disease systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3819
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • coexistence theory
  • ecosystem engineer
  • host immunity
  • metacommunity
  • pathogen diversity
  • spatial heterogeneity
  • variation-dependent mechanisms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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