Evolution 2011 May 24;65(5):1357-66. Epub 2010 Dec 24.
Origine, Structure, Evolution de la Diversité, UMR 7205 CNRS-MNHN, Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, CP39, 57 rue Cuvier, 75231 Paris Cedex 05, France.
Critical determinants of the optimum level of virulence in pathogens include the presence of competitors (i.e., multiple infections), their relatedness, and the effect of competitors on pathogen growth and disease development. Empirical data regarding the existence of competitive interactions and their impact on virulence remain very limited compared to theoretical studies. Here, we followed an experimental population of the model fungal pathogen Microbotryum lychnidis-dioicae on its caryophyllaceous host Silene latifolia. Our analysis revealed conditional responses by the pathogen to the presence of competitors, which was dependent upon the relatedness of pathogens within hosts. Overall, virulence was increased in cases of multiple infections as compared to single infections: both spore production and degree of plant sterilization were higher under multiple infections. The pathogen indeed increased its growth and reproductive rate when competitors were present within the same plant. Microbotryum also appeared able to interfere with competitors, reducing their ability to colonize the host, and this effect was smaller between closer relatives. Our results thus help to elucidate the myriad of theoretical considerations on the evolution of virulence by providing experimental results with a well-studied disease of wild plant populations.