In biology, a pathogen (Greek: πάθος pathos "suffering", "passion" and -γενής -genēs "producer of") in the oldest and broadest sense, is anything that can produce disease. A pathogen may also be referred to as an infectious agent, or simply a germ.

The term pathogen came into use in the 1880s.[1][2] Typically, the term is used to describe an infectious microorganism or agent, such as a virus, bacterium, protozoan, prion, viroid, or fungus.[3][4] Small animals, such as certain kinds of worms and insect larvae, can also produce disease. However, these animals are usually, in common parlance, referred to as parasites rather than pathogens. The scientific study of microscopic organisms, including microscopic pathogenic organisms, is called microbiology, while the study of disease that may include these pathogens is called pathology. Parasitology, meanwhile, is the scientific study of parasites and the organisms that host them.

There are several pathways through which pathogens can invade a host. The principal pathways have different episodic time frames, but soil has the longest or most persistent potential for harboring a pathogen. Diseases in humans that are caused by infectious agents are known as pathogenic diseases, though not all diseases are caused by pathogens. Some diseases, such as Huntington's disease, are caused by inheritance of abnormal genes.


Pathogenicity is the potential disease-causing capacity of pathogens. Pathogenicity is related to virulence in meaning, but some authorities have come to distinguish it as a qualitative term, whereas the latter is quantitative. By this standard, an organism may be said to be pathogenic or non-pathogenic in a particular context, but not "more pathogenic" than another. Such comparisons are described instead in terms of relative virulence. Pathogenicity is also distinct from the transmissibility of the virus, which quantifies the risk of infection.[5]

A pathogen may be described in terms of its ability to produce toxins, enter tissue, colonize, hijack nutrients, and its ability to immunosuppress the host.

Context-dependent pathogenicity

It is common to speak of an entire species of bacteria as pathogenic when it is identified as the cause of a disease (cf. Koch's postulates). However, the modern view is that pathogenicity depends on the microbial ecosystem as a whole. A bacterium may participate in opportunistic infections in immunocompromised hosts, acquire virulence factors by plasmid infection, become transferred to a different site within the host, or respond to changes in the overall numbers of other bacteria present. For example, infection of mesenteric lymph glands of mice with Yersinia can clear the way for continuing infection of these sites by Lactobacillus, possibly by a mechanism of "immunological scarring".[6]


Virulence (the tendency of a pathogen to cause damage to a host's fitness) evolves when that pathogen can spread from a diseased host, despite that host being very debilitated. Horizontal transmission occurs between hosts of the same species, in contrast to vertical transmission, which tends to evolve symbiosis (after a period of high morbidity and mortality in the population) by linking the pathogen's evolutionary success to the evolutionary success of the host organism.

Evolutionary medicine has found that under horizontal transmission, the host population might never develop tolerance to the pathogen.[citation needed]


Transmission of pathogens occurs through many different routes, including airborne, direct or indirect contact, sexual contact, through blood, breast milk, or other body fluids, and through the fecal-oral route.

Types of pathogens


Prions are misfolded proteins that can transfer their misfolded state to other normally folded proteins of the same type. They do not contain any DNA or RNA and cannot replicate other than to convert already existing normal proteins to the misfolded state. These abnormally folded proteins are found characteristically in some diseases such as scrapie, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.[7]


Viruses are small particles, typically between 20 and 300 nanometers in length,[8] containing RNA or DNA. Viruses require a host cell to replicate. Some of the diseases that are caused by viral pathogens include smallpox, influenza, mumps, measles, chickenpox, ebola, HIV, and rubella.

Pathogenic viruses are mainly from the families: Adenoviridae, Picornaviridae, Herpesviridae, Hepadnaviridae, Flaviviridae, Retroviridae, Orthomyxoviridae, Paramyxoviridae, Papovaviridae, Polyomavirus, Rhabdoviridae, and Togaviridae. HIV is a notable member of the family Retroviridae which affected 37.9 million people across the world in 2018.[9]


The vast majority of bacteria, which can range between 0.15 to 700 μM in length,[10] are harmless or beneficial to humans. However, a relatively small list of pathogenic bacteria can cause infectious diseases. Pathogenic bacteria have several ways that they can cause disease. They can either directly affect the cells of their host, produce endotoxins that damage the cells of their host, or cause a strong enough immune response that the host cells are damaged.

One of the bacterial diseases with the highest disease burden is tuberculosis, caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which killed 1.5 million people in 2013, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.[11] Pathogenic bacteria contribute to other globally significant diseases, such as pneumonia, which can be caused by bacteria such as Streptococcus and Pseudomonas, and foodborne illnesses, which can be caused by bacteria such as Shigella, Campylobacter, and Salmonella. Pathogenic bacteria also cause infections such as tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, and leprosy.


Fungi are eukaryotic organisms that can function as pathogens. There are approximately 300 known fungi that are pathogenic to humans[12] including Candida albicans, which is the most common cause of thrush, and Cryptococcus neoformans, which can cause a severe form of meningitis. The typical fungal spore size is <4.7 μm in length, but some spores may be larger.[13]


Algae are single-celled plants that are generally non-pathogenic although pathogenic varieties do exist. Protothecosis is a disease found in dogs, cats, cattle, and humans caused by a type of green alga known as prototheca that lacks chlorophyll.[14]

Other parasites

Some eukaryotic organisms, including a number of protozoa and helminths, are human parasites.

Pathogen hosts


Although bacteria can be pathogens themselves, they can also be infected by pathogens. Bacteriophages are viruses, also known as phage, that infect bacteria often leading to the death of the bacteria that was infected. Common bacteriophage include T7 and Lamda phage.[15] There are bacteriophages that infect every kind of bacteria including both gram-negative and gram-positive.[15] Even pathogenic bacteria that infect other species, including humans, can be infected with a phage.


Plants can play host to a wide range of pathogen types including viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and even other plants.[16] Notable plant viruses include the Papaya ringspot virus which has caused millions of dollars of damage to farmers in Hawaii and Southeast Asia,[17] and the Tobacco mosaic virus which caused scientist Martinus Beijerinck to coin the term "virus" in 1898.[18] Bacterial plant pathogens are also a serious problem causing leaf spots, blights, and rots in many plant species.[19] The top two bacterial pathogens for plants are P. syringae and R. solanacearum which cause leaf browning and other issues in potatoes, tomatoes, and bananas.[19]

Fungi are another major pathogen type for plants. They can cause a wide variety of issues such as shorter plant height, growths or pits on tree trunks, root or seed rot, and leaf spots.[20] Common and serious plant fungi include the rice blast fungus, Dutch Elm Disease, and Chestnut blight. It is estimated that pathogenic fungi alone cause up to a 65% reduction in crop yield.[19]

Overall, plants have a wide array of pathogens and it has been estimated that only 3% of the disease caused by plant pathogens can be managed.[19]


Animals often get infected with many of the same or similar pathogens as humans including prions, viruses, bacteria, and fungi. While wild animals often get illnesses, the larger danger is for livestock animals. It is estimated that in rural settings, 90% or more of livestock deaths can be attributed to pathogens.[21][22] The prion disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as Mad cow disease, is one of the few prion diseases that affect animals.[23] Other animal diseases include a variety of immunodeficiency disorders that are caused by viruses related to the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) including BIV and FIV.[24]


Humans can be infected with many types of pathogens including prions, viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Viruses and bacteria that infect humans can cause symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, fever, vomiting, and even death. Some of these symptoms are caused by the virus itself while others are caused by the immune system of the infected person.[25]



Despite many attempts, no therapy has been shown to halt the progression of prion diseases.[26]


A variety of prevention and treatment options exist for some viral pathogens. Vaccines are one common and effective preventative measure against a variety of viral pathogens.[27] Vaccines prime the immune system of the host, so that when the potential host encounters the virus in the wild, the immune system can defend against infection quickly. Vaccines exist for viruses such as the measles, mumps, and rubella viruses and the influenza virus.[28] Some viruses such as HIV, dengue, and chikungunya do not have vaccines available.[29]

Treatment of viral infections often involves treating the symptoms of the infection rather than providing any medication that affects the viral pathogen itself.[30][31] Treating the symptoms of a viral infection gives the host immune system time to develop antibodies against the viral pathogen which will then clear the infection. In some cases, treatment against the virus is necessary. One example of this is HIV where antiretroviral therapy, also known as ART or HAART, is needed to prevent immune cell loss and the progression into AIDS.[32]


Much like viral pathogens, infection by certain bacterial pathogens can be prevented via vaccines.[28] Vaccines against bacterial pathogens include the anthrax vaccine and the pneumococcal vaccine. Many other bacterial pathogens lack vaccines as a preventative measure, but infection by these bacteria can often be treated or prevented with antibiotics. Common antibiotics include amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, and doxycycline. Each antibiotic has different bacteria that it is effective against and has different mechanisms to kill that bacteria. For example, doxycycline inhibits the synthesis of new proteins in both gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria which leads to the death of the affected bacteria.[33]

Due in part to over-prescribing antibiotics in circumstances where they are not needed, some bacterial pathogens have developed antibiotic resistance and are becoming hard to treat with classical antibiotics.[34] A genetically distinct strain of Staphylococcus aureus called MRSA is one example of a bacterial pathogen that is difficult to treat with common antibiotics. A report released in 2013 by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that each year in the United States, at least 2 million people get an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, and at least 23,000 people die from those infections.[35]


Infection by fungal pathogens is treated with anti-fungal medication. Fungal infections such as athlete's foot, jock itch, and ringworm are infections of the skin and can be treated with topical anti-fungal medications like Clotrimazole.[36] Other common fungal infections include infections by the yeast strain Candida albicans. Candida can cause infections of the mouth or throat, commonly referred to as thrush, or it can cause vaginal infections. These internal infections can either be treated with anti-fungal creams or with oral medication. Common anti-fungal drugs for internal infections include the Echinocandin family of drugs and Fluconazole.[37]


Algae are commonly not thought of as pathogens, but the genus Prototheca is known to cause disease in humans.[38][39] Treatment for this kind of infection is currently under investigation and there is no consistency in clinical treatment.[39]

Sexual interactions

Many pathogens are capable of sexual interaction. Among pathogenic bacteria sexual interaction occurs between cells of the same species by the process of natural genetic transformation. Transformation involves the transfer of DNA from a donor cell to a recipient cell and the integration of the donor DNA into the recipient genome by recombination. Examples of bacterial pathogens capable of natural transformation are Helicobacter pylori, Haemophilus influenzae, Legionella pneumophila, Neisseria gonorrhoeae and Streptococcus pneumoniae.[40]

Eukaryotic pathogens are often capable of sexual interaction by a process involving meiosis and syngamy. Meiosis involves the intimate pairing of homologous chromosomes and recombination between them. Examples of eukaryotic pathogens capable of sex include the protozoan parasites Plasmodium falciparum, Toxoplasma gondii, Trypanosoma brucei, Giardia intestinalis, and the fungi Aspergillus fumigatus, Candida albicans and Cryptococcus neoformans.[40]

Viruses may also undergo sexual interaction when two or more viral genomes enter the same host cell. This process involves pairing of homologous genomes and recombination between them by a process referred to as multiplicity reactivation. Examples of viruses that undergo this process are herpes simplex virus, human immunodeficiency virus, and vaccinia virus.[40]

The sexual processes in bacteria, microbial eukaryotes and viruses all involve recombination between homologous genomes that appears to facilitate the repair of genome damages inflicted on the genome of the pathogens by the defenses of their respective target hosts.

See also


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