Continua of specificity and virulence in plant host–pathogen interactions: causes and consequences


Author for correspondence:
Joy Bergelson
Tel: +1 773 834 7690



  • Summary 513

  • I. Introduction 513
  • II. Continua in plant host–pathogen interactions 514
  • III. Mechanisms underlying continua in specificity and virulence 516
  • IV. Ecological consequences 519
  • V. Evolutionary patterns and processes 520
  • VI. Conclusions 524
  • Acknowledgements 525

  • References 525


Ecological, evolutionary and molecular models of interactions between plant hosts and microbial pathogens are largely based around a concept of tightly coupled interactions between species pairs. However, highly pathogenic and obligate associations between host and pathogen species represent only a fraction of the diversity encountered in natural and managed systems. Instead, many pathogens can infect a wide range of hosts, and most hosts are exposed to more than one pathogen species, often simultaneously. Furthermore, outcomes of pathogen infection vary widely because host plants vary in resistance and tolerance to infection, while pathogens are also variable in their ability to grow on or within hosts. Environmental heterogeneity further increases the potential for variation in plant host–pathogen interactions by influencing the degree and fitness consequences of infection. Here, we describe these continua of specificity and virulence inherent within plant host–pathogen interactions. Using this framework, we describe and contrast the genetic and environmental mechanisms that underlie this variation, outline consequences for epidemiology and community structure, explore likely ecological and evolutionary drivers, and highlight several key areas for future research.