, Volume 107, Issue 3, pp 307-320

Host adaptation in the anther smut fungus Ustilago violacea (Microbotryum violaceum): infection success, spore production and alteration of floral traits on two host species and their F1-hybrid

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Abstract

It is often assumed that host specialization is promoted by trade-offs in the performance of parasites on different host species, but experimental evidence for such trade-offs is scant. We studied differences in performance among strains of the anther smut fungus Ustilago violacea from two closely related host plant species, Silene alba and S. dioica, on progeny of (1) the host species from which they originated, (2) the alternative host species, and (3) inter-specific hybrids. Significant intra-specific variation in the pathogen was found for both infection success on a range of host genotypes (virulence) and components of spore production per infected host (aggressiveness) (sensu Burdon 1987). Strains did not have overall higher virulence on conspecifics of their host of origin than on strains from the heterospecific host, but they did have a significantly (c. 3 times) higher spore production per infected male host. This finding suggests that host adaptation may have evolved with respect to aggressiveness rather than virulence. The higher aggressiveness of strains on conspecifics of their host of origin resulted both from higher spore production per infected flower (spores are produced in the anthers), and greater ability to stimulate flower production on infected hosts. The latter indicates the presence of adaptive intraspecific variation in the ability of host manipulation. As transmission of the fungus is mediated by insects that are both pollinators of the host and vectors of the disease, we also assessed the effect of strains on host floral traits. Infection resulted in a reduction of inflorescence height, flower size, and nectar production per flower. Strains did not differ in their effect on nectar production, but infection with strains from S. alba resulted in a stronger reduction of inflorescence height and petal size on both host species. Vectors may therefore in principle discriminate among hosts infected by different strains and affect their efficiency of transmission. Contrary to assumptions of recent hypotheses about the role of host hybrids in the evolution of parasites, hybrids were not generally more susceptible than parental hosts. It is therefore unlikely that the rate of evolution of the pathogen on the parental species is slowed down by selection for specialization on the hybrids.