23 January 2021

How Do Pathogens Evolve Novel Virulence Activities?

Sacristán S, Goss EM, Eves-van den Akker S - Molecular Plant Microbe Interactions, 2021


This article is part of the Top 10 Unanswered Questions in MPMI invited review series.

We consider the state of knowledge on pathogen evolution of novel virulence activities, broadly defined as anything that increases pathogen fitness with the consequence of causing disease in either the qualitative or quantitative senses, including adaptation of pathogens to host immunity and physiology, host species, genotypes, or tissues, or the environment. The evolution of novel virulence activities as an adaptive trait is based on the selection exerted by hosts on variants that have been generated de novo or arrived from elsewhere. In addition, the biotic and abiotic environment a pathogen experiences beyond the host may influence pathogen virulence activities. We consider host-pathogen evolution, host range expansion, and external factors that can mediate pathogen evolution. We then discuss the mechanisms by which pathogens generate and recombine the genetic variation that leads to novel virulence activities, including DNA point mutation, transposable element activity, gene duplication and neofunctionalization, and genetic exchange. In summary, if there is an (epi)genetic mechanism that can create variation in the genome, it will be used by pathogens to evolve virulence factors. Our knowledge of virulence evolution has been biased by pathogen evolution in response to major gene resistance, leaving other virulence activities underexplored. Understanding the key driving forces that give rise to novel virulence activities and the integration of evolutionary concepts and methods with mechanistic research on plant-microbe interactions can help inform crop protection.

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