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Plant pathogens can adapt to a variety of climates, hosts

A fungal pathogen is pictured destroying a bunch of bananas in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Clare Thatcher
A fungal pathogen is pictured destroying a bunch of bananas in Java, Indonesia. Photo by Clare Thatcher

June 11 (UPI) -- New research suggests crop pathogens are exceptionally adaptive -- perhaps, alarmingly so. Scientists found a large percentage of known crop pathogens can adapt to a variety of climate conditions and infect a diversity of crop hosts.

For the study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, researchers surveyed the documented ranges of fungi and oomycetes known to infect crops. The study's authors also surveyed documented host pairings and analyzed the evolution of different host-pathogens.

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Their analysis showed some pathogens specialize in a narrow temperature range or hone in on a small group of host plants, or even a single species. But many more pathogens have wide temperature or host ranges -- or both.

"Traditionally, scientists have considered species to be specialists or generalists," lead study author Dan Bebber, associate professor of biosciences at the University of Exeter, said in a news release. "Generalists are sometimes called 'Jack of all trades, master of none.' Our analyses show that many plant pathogens are 'Jack of some trades, master of others.'"

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The findings collected by Bebber and his research partners comprises the largest data set on the temperature ranges of plant pathogens. Researchers have made the data set available to the scientific community.

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"Our data allow us to test some of the most fundamental questions in ecology and evolution," said study co-author Tom Chaloner, doctoral student at Exeter's Global Systems Institute. "For example, we found that temperature preferences are narrower when pathogens are growing within plants, demonstrating the difference between the so-called fundamental niche and the realized niche."

Scientists were able to estimate the ability of pathogens to adapt to different plants by analyzing the co-evolution between pathogens and their hosts. The evolutionary histories of crop pathogens showed many are able to quickly adapt to new hosts.

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Their unique adaptability make plant pathogens a serious threat to both farms and forests.

"In an era of growing global population size, climate change and emerging threats to crop production and food security, our findings will be key to understanding where and when pathogens could strike next," said study co-author Sarah Gurr, professor of biosciences at Exeter.

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