, Volume 153, Issue 1, pp 173-183
Date: 06 Apr 2007

Resistance to rust fungi in Lolium perenne depends on within-species variation and performance of the host species in grasslands of different plant diversity

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Abstract

The hypothesis that plant species diversity and genetic variation of the host species decrease the severity of plant diseases is supported by studies of agricultural systems, but experimental evidence from more complex systems is scarce. In an experiment with grassland communities of varying species richness (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, and 60 species) and functional group richness (1, 2, 3, and 4 functional groups), we used different cultivars of Lolium perenne (perennial ryegrass) to study effects of biodiversity and cultivar identity on the occurrence and severity of foliar fungal diseases caused by Puccinia coronata (crown rust) and P. graminis (stem rust). Cultivar monocultures of perennial ryegrass revealed strong differences in pathogen susceptibility among these cultivars. Disease intensity caused by both rust fungi decreased significantly with growing species richness of species mixtures. The response to the diversity gradient was related to the decreased density and size of the host individuals with increasing species richness. The occurrence of other grass species known to be possible hosts of the pathogens in the experimental mixtures did not promote disease intensity in L. perenne, indicating that there was a high host specificity of pathogen strains. Differences in pathogen susceptibility among perennial ryegrass cultivars persisted independent of diversity treatment, host density and host individual size, but resulted in a cultivar-specific pattern of changes in pathogen infestation across the species-richness gradient. Our study provided evidence that within-species variation in pathogen susceptibility and competitive interactions of the host species with the environment, as caused by species diversity treatments, are key determinants of the occurrence and severity of fungal diseases.