are four criteria designed to establish a causal relationship between a causative microbe
and a disease
. The postulates were formulated by Robert Koch
and Friedrich Loeffler
in 1884 and refined and published by Koch in 1890. Koch applied the postulates to establish the etiology
, but they have been generalized to other diseases.
Koch's postulates are:
- The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but not in healthy organisms.
- The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
- The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
- The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.
However, Koch abandoned the second part of the first postulate altogether when he discovered asymptomatic carriers of cholera and, later, of typhoid fever. Asymptomatic carriers are now known to be a common feature of many infectious diseases, especially viruses such as polio, herpes simplex, HIV and hepatitis C. As a specific example, all doctors and virologists agree that poliovirus causes paralysis in just a few infected subjects, and the success of the polio vaccine in preventing disease supports the conviction that the poliovirus is the causative agent.
The third postulate specifies "should", not "must", because as Koch himself proved in regard to both tuberculosis and cholera, not all organisms exposed to an infectious agent will acquire the infection. Noninfection may be due to: chance or to the host's immune system successfully repulsing the invading pathogen; acquired immunity, as from previous exposure or vaccination; or genetic immunity, as with the resistance to malaria conferred by possessing at least one sickle cell allele.
Koch's postulates were developed in the 19th century as general guidelines to identify pathogens
that could be isolated with the techniques of the day. Even in Koch's time, it was recognized that some infectious agents were clearly responsible for disease even though they did not fulfill all of the postulates. Attempts to rigidly apply Koch's postulates to the diagnosis of viral diseases in the late 19th century, at a time when viruses could not be seen or isolated in culture, may have impeded the early development of the field of virology
. Currently, a number of infectious agents are accepted as the cause of disease despite their not fulfilling all of Koch's postulates. Therefore, while Koch's postulates retain historical importance and continue to inform the approach to microbiologic diagnosis, fulfillment of all four postulates is not required to demonstrate causality.
Koch's postulates have also influenced scientists who examine microbial pathogenesis from a molecular point of view. In the 1980s, a molecular version of Koch's postulates was developed to guide the identification of microbial genes encoding virulence factors.