Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 1149–1157
The evolutionary dynamics of pathogens are critically important for disease outcomes, prevalence and emergence. In this study we investigate ecological conditions that may promote the long-term maintenance of virulence polymorphisms in pathogen populations. Recent theory predicts that evolution towards increased virulence can be reversed if less-aggressive social ‘cheats’ exploit more aggressive ‘cooperator’ pathogens. However, there is no evidence that social exploitation operates within natural pathogen populations. We show that for the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae, major polymorphisms for pathogenicity are maintained at unexpectedly high frequencies in populations infecting the host Arabidopsis thaliana. Experiments reveal that less-aggressive strains substantially increase their growth potential in mixed infections and have a fitness advantage in non-host environments. These results suggest that niche differentiation can contribute to the maintenance of virulence polymorphisms, and that both within-host and between-host growth rates modulate cheating and cooperation in P. syringae populations.