Background: Monoculture, multi-cropping and wider use of highly resistant cultivars have been proposed as mechanisms to explain the elevated rate of evolution of plant pathogens in agricultural ecosystems. We used a mark-release-recapture experiment with the wheat pathogen Phaeosphaeria nodorum to evaluate the impact of two of these mechanisms on the evolution of a pathogen population. Nine P. nodorum isolates marked with ten microsatellite markers and one minisatellite were released onto five replicated host populations to initiate epidemics of Stagonospora nodorum leaf blotch. The experiment was carried out over two consecutive host growing seasons and two pathogen collections were made during each season. Results: A total of 637 pathogen isolates matching the marked inoculants were recovered from inoculated plots over two years. Genetic diversity in the host populations affected the evolution of the corresponding P. nodorum populations. In the cultivar mixture the relative frequencies of inoculants did not change over the course of the experiment and the pathogen exhibited a low variation in selection coefficients. Conclusions: Our results support the hypothesis that increasing genetic heterogeneity in host populations may retard the rate of evolution in associated pathogen populations. Our experiment also provides indirect evidence of fitness costs associated with host specialization in P. nodorum as indicated by differential selection during the pathogenic and saprophytic phases.
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