Emergence of Fungal Plant Diseases Linked to Ecological Speciation

KNOXVILLE — A research paper by a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professor and associate director for scientific activities at National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) has made its way to the floor of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons.

The paper, published online in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (TREE), is written by Sergey Gavrilets, a distinguished professor in the ecology and evolutionary biology department in the College of Arts and Sciences, Tatiana Giraud and Pierre Gladieux, both researchers at Universite Paris-Sud. It was used as an example by Paul Craze, TREE’s acting editor, in support of funding for science and scientific research.

The paper argues that the intrinsic factor of ecological speciation, the process of one species evolving into a different species due to a change in relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, can play a role in the emergence of new diseases in plants. This breaks from previous studies which examine extrinsic factors such as climate change or worldwide trade as playing developmental roles in novel pathogens.

In his written testimony for the House of Commons, Craze cited the paper’s application of fundamental science research on evolution to the understanding of emerging disease to illustrate how research, even on a narrow subject such as speciation, can have a profound and wide-reaching impact.

“It’s a good example of how research on an apparently esoteric area of science — speciation — can unexpectedly produce insights that potentially have social and economic importance,” Craze wrote in his testimony provided to the Science and Technology Committee on the Impact of Spending Cuts on Science and Scientific Research.

The discovery outlined in the paper could aid in thwarting such outbreaks as the chestnut blight fungus, which wiped out the chestnut tree population in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as nearly 100 percent of chestnut trees throughout eastern American forests during the last century. The paper’s authors argue linking emerging diseases with ecological speciation has important implications for understanding the biological mechanisms of disease and for designing more efficient and sustainable control programs.

“If we are to fully understand emerging diseases, we recommend thinking differently about life-history traits to tailor models based on specificities of pathogens,” they wrote.

Life-history features, such as host shifts, mating within hosts and frequent asexual reproduction, can spur ecological speciation. This can apply not only to fungi but also nematodes, bacteria and viruses.

For more information NIMBioS, visit http://nimbios.org.

C O N T A C T:

Catherine Crawley (865-974-9350, ccrawley@nimbios.org)

Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460, wholmes7@utk.edu)

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