Antagonistic coevolution between plants and pathogens has generated a broad array of attack and defense mechanisms. In the classical avirulence (Avr) gene-for-gene model, the pathogen gene evolves to escape host recognition while the host resistance (R) gene evolves to track the evolving pathogen elicitor. In the case of host-specific toxins (HST), the evolutionary arms race may be inverted, with the gene encoding the pathogen toxin evolving to maintain recognition of the host sensitivity target while the host sensitivity gene evolves to escape binding with the toxin. Pathogen effector genes, including those encoding Avr elicitors and HST, often show elevated levels of polymorphism reflecting the coevolutionary arms race between host and pathogen. However, selection can also eliminate variation in the coevolved gene and its neighboring regions when advantageous alleles are swept to fixation. The distribution and diversity of corresponding host genes will have a major impact on the distribution and diversity of effectors in the pathogen population. Population genetic analyses including both hosts and their pathogens provide an essential tool to understand the diversity and dynamics of effector genes. Here, we summarize current knowledge about the population genetics of fungal and oomycete effector genes, focusing on recent studies that have used both spatial and temporal collections to assess the diversity and distribution of alleles and to monitor changes in allele frequencies over time. These studies illustrate that effector genes exhibit a significant degree of diversity at both small and large sampling scales, suggesting that local selection plays an important role in their evolution. They also illustrate that Avr elicitors and HST may be recognizing the same R genes in plants, leading to evolutionary outcomes that differ for necrotrophs and biotrophs while affecting the evolution of the corresponding R genes. Under this scenario, the optimal number of R genes in a plant genome may be determined by the relative abundance of necrotrophic and biotrophic pathogens in the plant’s environment.
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