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Recent innovations have increased enormously the opportunities for investigating the molecular basis of bacterial pathogenicity, including the availability of whole-genome sequences, techniques for identifying key virulence genes, and the use of microarrays and proteomics. These methods should provide powerful tools for analysing the patterns of gene expression and function required for investigating host-microbe interactions in vivo. But, the challenge is exacting. Pathogenicity is a complex phenotype and the reductionist approach does not adequately address the eclectic and variable outcomes of host-microbe interactions, including evolutionary dynamics and ecological factors. There are difficulties in distinguishing bacterial 'virulence' factors from the many determinants that are permissive for pathogenicity, for example those promoting general fitness. A further practical problem for some of the major bacterial pathogens is that there are no satisfactory animal models or experimental assays that adequately reflect the infection under investigation. In this review, we give a personal perspective on the challenge of characterizing how bacterial pathogens behave in vivo and discuss some of the methods that might be most relevant for understanding the molecular basis of the diseases for which they are responsible. Despite the powerful genomic, molecular, cellular and structural technologies available to us, we are still struggling to come to grips with the question of 'What is a pathogen?'

Original publication




Journal article


Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

Publication Date





643 - 656


Animals, Bacteria, Genes, Bacterial, Genome, Bacterial, Humans, Virulence