Variation in infectivity and aggressiveness in space and time in wild host–pathogen systems: causes and consequences


Correspondence: Ayco J. M. Tack, Metapopulation Research Group, Department of Biosciences, University of Helsinki, PO Box 65 (Viikinkaari 1), FI-00014 Helsinki, Finland.

Tel.: +358 451 107 855; fax: +358 919 157 694; e-mail:


Variation in host resistance and in the ability of pathogens to infect and grow (i.e. pathogenicity) is important as it provides the raw material for antagonistic (co)evolution and therefore underlies risks of disease spread, disease evolution and host shifts. Moreover, the distribution of this variation in space and time may inform us about the mode of coevolutionary selection (arms race vs. fluctuating selection dynamics) and the relative roles of G × G interactions, gene flow, selection and genetic drift in shaping coevolutionary processes. Although variation in host resistance has recently been reviewed, little is known about overall patterns in the frequency and scale of variation in pathogenicity, particularly in natural systems. Using 48 studies from 30 distinct host–pathogen systems, this review demonstrates that variation in pathogenicity is ubiquitous across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Quantitative analysis of a subset of extensively studied plant–pathogen systems shows that the magnitude of within-population variation in pathogenicity is large relative to among-population variation and that the distribution of pathogenicity partly mirrors the distribution of host resistance. At least part of the variation in pathogenicity found at a given spatial scale is adaptive, as evidenced by studies that have examined local adaptation at scales ranging from single hosts through metapopulations to entire continents and – to a lesser extent – by comparisons of pathogenicity with neutral genetic variation. Together, these results support coevolutionary selection through fluctuating selection dynamics. We end by outlining several promising directions for future research.