On Virulence


Journal names are important because they often define the scope of the publication.  A journal’s name must be sufficiently specific to define the major interest of the publication but not too narrow to prevent its rapid obsolescence as fields evolve.  In naming this journal ‘Virulence’ the creators of this scientific publishing venue have staked a remarkably broad scope and it is worthwhile to reflect on the choice of the word and what this could mean for the future of the journal.

No other major journal in the broad disciplines of microbiology, microbial pathogenesis or immunology has used the word ‘Virulence’ in the journal name.  Perhaps the reticence to use this word has to do with the inexactness commonly associated with the definition of term ‘virulence’ (1).  However, this cannot be the sole reason since other journals have used the word ‘pathogen’, which has also been plagued by inexact definitions  (1).  Perhaps the word virulence has not been used in or as a journal name because of the negative connotations with which it is associated, since virulence is a word that is also used colloquially to refer to something venomous, poisonous, rancorous or otherwise dangerous and thus to be avoided.  In contrast, words like Microbe and/or Host have been used in journal names.  These words refer to definable entities whose individual properties and interactions with one another result in the outcomes that define microbial pathogenesis.  Similarly, words like Immunity, Immunology, and Infection have also been used in journal names.  These words refer to active processes (immunity, infection) and the area in which they are grouped (immunology).  Unlike the foregoing terms, which do not imply predictable outcomes, the term virulence clearly connotes an outcome and that outcome is detrimental or harmful.  There is no field of science that calls itself virulence, with studies of microbial virulence falling into categories.  Hence, this journal has claimed a territory where others have not treaded.

Virulence is a microbial property and consequently it encompasses everything that contributes to making some microbes pathogenic.  However, virulence is an unusual microbial property because it does not define an independent determinant of microbial activity, or characteristic.  Unlike individual traits, such as capsules or toxins, which can be singular determinants of microbial behavior, virulence must be defined in the context of a susceptible host (2).  For example, no matter how virulent variola virus has the potential to be based on its individual traits, its virulence can only be expressed in a non-immune (susceptible) human host.  Hence virulence is a reflection of the outcome of host-microbe interaction in a susceptible host, rather than a stable or predictable microbial trait.  Quantitative and qualitative measures of virulence vary as a function of host factors, microbial factors, environmental factors, social factors and interactions amongst them.  As such, in addition to microbial factors, host physiology, genetics, the immunological response, and/or environmental factors, ranging from global warming to water purification, and/or social factors, ranging from poverty to availability of antimicrobial therapies and vaccines could conceivably fall within the purview of this journal.  Hence, the word virulence is all encompassing in the realm of microbial pathogenesis.

The topic of virulence must necessarily include its negation, or avirulence.  This is potentially of great importance for the future of the journal since most host-microbe interactions do not result in virulence for the host.  Hence, one could argue that the vast majority of human-microbe interactions fall into the avirulence category.  These interactions are beneficial to the host, as the host-associated microflora provide niche protection against more pathogenic microbes, nutrition, and immune system instruction.  Consequently, the 21st century may witness an increased emphasis on studying beneficial host-microbe interactions.  In this regard, the choice of virulence as the name for this journal provides it with the opportunity to serve as a venue for publication in an area that will almost certainly increase in importance.

In summary, Virulence appears to be an excellent choice for a journal name because the word is inclusive and broad in scope, providing the capacity for flexible, inclusive and interdisciplinary avenues for it to define itself through its published content.  Virulence is an appropriately ‘catholic’ name for a journal, as the word catholic means universal apart from its religious connotation.   Choosing the word virulence to name this journal immediately creates a large tent for the publication of studies of host-microbe interactions under which a flexible focus for the evolution and definition of its content can develop as a reflection of the preferences and visions of the editors, readers, and contributors.

1. Casadevall A, Pirofski L. Host-pathogen interactions: redefining the basic concepts of virulence and pathogenicity. Infect Immun 1999; 67:3703-13.
2. Casadevall A, Pirofski L. Host-pathogen interactions: the attributes of virulence. J Infect Dis 2001; 184:337-44.

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On Virulence