Recent study shows that co-infected plants cause more severe epidemics

Pedro Vale, in the Centre for Immunity, Inection and Evolution, and colleagues from the University of Helsinki, have found that plant hosts co-infected with more than one pathogen strain result in more severe epidemics than plants infected with only one strain.

The work was carried out in collaboration with Anna-Liisa Laine and her research group at University of Helsinki, who have been studying the interaction between the host plant ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), and its powdery mildew pathogen (Podosphaera plantaginis), across hundreds of populations.

Left:  Plantago lanceolata; middle:  Plantago lanceolata infected with powdery mildew; right:  Pedro Vale

The current study, recently published in the journal Nature Communications,  found that co-infection by several strains of the same host plant are common in the wild with more than half of the pathogen populations supporting co-infection.

Experimental work coupled with field surveys of infection found that host populations supprting co-infection suffer more severe epidemics than those where a single pathogen strain is present. A spore trapping experiment confirmed that the change in epidemiological dynamics is explained by the higher spore production rate of each individual host plant under co-infection.

Implications for disease prevention strategies

These results confirm classic predictions of how infection dynamics can fundamentally change under co-infection. This work underlines the importance of understanding individual host variation in order to mitigate the severity and spread of infection. The study also highlights how important it is to account for co-infection - which can be spatially and temporally variable - when designing disease prevention efforts.

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