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Keywords:

  • co-evolution;
  • cryptic species;
  • Dianthus;
  • evolution of virulence;
  • generalist;
  • Silene;
  • specialist

Abstract

Host sterilization is a common feature of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Because host reproductive failure may free up resources for pathogen reproduction and transmission, theory predicts that selection on sterilizing pathogens will favour maximum virulence (i.e. complete sterilization). We examined patterns of infection in sexually transmitted anther-smut fungi (Microbotryum) on four of their host species in the Caryophyllaceae. Using controlled fungal matings and experimental inoculations, we compared disease expression in inoculations ranging from host-specific pathogens to hybrids and cross-species treatments. Our data support the existence of host-specific sibling species within the genus Microbotryum based on a low infection rate from cross-inoculations and reduced fitness for hybrid pathogens. These patterns of host specificity and reproductive isolation, however, were not absolute. We did observe some successful cross-species and hybrid infections, but the expression of disease was frequently incomplete, including only partial host sterilization and the failed dehiscence of pathogen spores. The prevalence of these maladapted disease phenotypes may greatly inhibit the emergence of novel host pathogen combinations. Infections by hybrid pathogen genotypes were intermediate, in terms of both infection rate and the normality of disease symptoms, between host-specific and cross-inoculated pathogens. In addition, the frequency with which hybrid and cross-inoculated anther-smut pathogens were able to infect but not sterilize new hosts supports the prediction that sterilizing STDs are under selection to maximize virulence in natural populations.