Spatial variation in disease resistance: from molecules to metapopulations


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1. Variation in disease resistance is a widespread phenomenon in wild plant–pathogen associations. Here, we review current literature on natural plant–pathogen associations to determine how diversity in disease resistance is distributed at different hierarchical levels – within host individuals, within host populations, amongst host populations at the metapopulation scale and at larger regional scales.

2. We find diversity in resistance across all spatial scales examined. Furthermore, variability seems to be the best counter-defence of plants against their rapidly evolving pathogens. We find that higher diversity of resistance phenotypes also results in higher levels of resistance at the population level.

3. Overall, we find that wild plant populations are more likely to be susceptible than resistant to their pathogens. However, the degree of resistance differs strikingly depending on the origin of the pathogen strains used in experimental inoculation studies. Plant populations are on average 16% more resistant to allopatric pathogen strains than they are to strains that occur within the same population (48% vs. 32% respectively).

4. Pathogen dispersal mode affects levels of resistance in natural plant populations with lowest levels detected for hosts of airborne pathogens and highest for waterborne pathogens.

5. Detailed analysis of two model systems, Linum marginale infected by Melampsora lini, and Plantago lanceolata infected by Podosphaera plantaginis, show that the amount of variation in disease resistance declines towards higher spatial scales as we move from individual hosts to metapopulations, but evaluation of multiple spatial scales is needed to fully capture the structure of disease resistance.

6.Synthesis. Variation in disease resistance is ubiquitous in wild plant–pathogen associations. Whilst the debate over whether the resistance structure of plant populations is determined by pathogen-imposed selection versus non-adaptive processes remains unresolved, we do report examples of pathogen-imposed selection on host resistance. Here we highlight the importance of measuring resistance across multiple spatial scales, and of using sympatric strains when looking for signs of coevolution in wild plant–pathogen interactions.