What is a vector?

Precise definitions are important in science, because I said so (and other better reasons). In parasite ecology, the tricky definitions that students often mix up are things like parasite versus parasitoid and microparasite versus macroparasite. In fact, at least 20 visitors per week happen upon this blog because they want look up one of those terms.

But it isn’t just students and the general public who struggle with tricky definitions in parasite ecology. Within the field, we can’t even agree on what to call our discipline! (Disease ecology? Parasitology? Epidemiology?) And it has recently come to my attention that a term that I thought had bullet-proof definition is somewhat controversial among parasite ecologists.

In an awesome special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B that just came out this month, there was a thought-provoking article entitled, “What is a vector?” The idea for the article came from a working group of the British Ecological Society’s ‘Parasites & Pathogens’ Special Interest Group, where participants unexpectedly found that they did not all use the same definition of “vector.” The article contained a whole list of possible definitions that the authors found in the literature, including this subset, which I have re-numbered for my own purposes:

Definition 1A: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms of a different species.”

Definition 1B: “Any organism (vertebrate or invertebrate) or inanimate object (i.e., fomite) that functions as a carrier of an infectious agent between organisms.”

Definition 2: “Any organism that can transmit infectious diseases between humans or from animals to humans.”

Definition 3A: “Hosts that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

Definition 3B: “Blood-feeding arthropods such as mosquitoes, ticks, sandflies, tsetse flies and biting midges that transmit a pathogen while feeding non-lethally upon the internal fluids of another host.”

I couldn’t believe that parasite ecologists differed so much with their working definitions, so I put them into a poll, and then I asked you guys to tell me which definitions you use. (Thanks for your participation!) To my great surprise, your answers were all over the place! No one really used Definition 2 (the “anthropocentric” definition), but all of the other definitions received some support. As of 21 March, the most popular definition was 1A, and 1A+B were more popular than 3A+B.

Wilson et al. (2017) do a great job of discussing the pros and cons of each definition, and they also take a stab at a possible mathematical definition (the “sequential” definition), so I’d recommend giving their paper a read for a lot more coverage than you’re going to get here. I’m just going to cover two points that were surprising to me.

First surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1B over 1A, because I don’t like including fomites in the definition of a vector. My primary reason for preferring IA is that we already have a term for inanimate objects that transmit infectious agents (i.e., fomites). Wilson et al. (2017) provide a good discussion on the utility of thinking about some fomites (e.g., drug needles) in pseudo-biological terms that would normally apply to vectors. But I think that I’d still prefer to call things like needles “fomites,” even if it’s helpful to think of their parallels with living vectors.

Second surprise: I did not expect that so many people would prefer 1A+B to 3A+B. As Wilson et al. (2017) discuss, the 1A+B definitions are broad; for instance, the wording suggests that we include intermediate hosts (i.e., snails infected by trematodes) as vectors! It also suggests that any host capable of interspecific transmission could be a vector. 

In the end,Wilson et al. (2017) suggested that parasite ecologists think carefully about their definitions of the term “vector,” and then they scored a closing home run with, “all vector definitions are wrong, but some are (we hope) useful.” WOMP WOMP.

Give the paper a read, and share your thoughts in the comments!

Reference:

Wilson, A. J., E. R. Morgan, M. Booth, R. Norman, S. E. Perkins, H. C. Hauffe, N. Mideo, J. Antonovics, H. McCallum, and A. Fenton. 2017. What is a vector? Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 372:20160085.