Recent theoretical and empirical studies of the population biology of infectious diseases have helped to improve our understanding of the major factors that influence the three phases of a successful invasion, namely initial establishment, persistence in the longer term and spread to other host communities. Of central importance in all three phases is the magnitude of the basic reproductive rate or transmission potential of the parasite. The value of this parameter is determined by a variety of biological properties of the association between an individual parasite and its host and the interaction between their populations. The recent epidemic of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in North America and Europe is employed to illustrate the factors that promote disease establishment and spread. The frequency distribution of the number of different sexual partners per unit of time within homosexual communities is shown to be of central importance with respect to future trends in the incidence of AIDS. Broader aspects of pathogen invasion are examined by reference to simple mathematical models of three species associations, which mirror parasite introduction into resident predator-prey, host-parasite and competitive interactions. Many outcomes are possible, depending on the values of the numerous parameters that influence multi-species population interactions. Pathogen invasion is shown to have far-reaching implications for the structure and stability of ecological communities.