Why genetic selection to reduce the prevalence of infectious diseases is way more promising than currently believed

Hulst, Andries D.; Jong, Mart C.M. de; Bijma, Piter


Genetic selection for improved disease resistance is an important part of strategies to combat infectious diseases in agriculture. Quantitative genetic analyses of binary disease status, however, indicate low heritability for most diseases, which restricts the rate of genetic reduction in disease prevalence. Moreover, the common liability threshold model suggests that eradication of an infectious disease via genetic selection is impossible because the observed-scale heritability goes to zero when the prevalence approaches zero. From infectious disease epidemiology, however, we know that eradication of infectious diseases is possible, both in theory and practice, because of positive feedback mechanisms leading to the phenomenon known as herd immunity. The common quantitative genetic models, however, ignore these feedback mechanisms. Here, we integrate quantitative genetic analysis of binary disease status with epidemiological models of transmission, aiming to identify the potential response to selection for reducing the prevalence of endemic infectious diseases. The results show that typical heritability values of binary disease status correspond to a very substantial genetic variation in disease susceptibility among individuals. Moreover, our results show that eradication of infectious diseases by genetic selection is possible in principle. These findings strongly disagree with predictions based on common quantitative genetic models, which ignore the positive feedback effects that occur when reducing the transmission of infectious diseases. Those feedback effects are a specific kind of Indirect Genetic Effects; they contribute substantially to the response to selection and the development of herd immunity (i.e., an effective reproduction ratio less than one).