If you haven’t yet heard the story of the body-snatching parasite lurking among wildflower populations across the globe, you certainly would not be alone. There is no need for alarm – it is a natural part of its ecosystem, and has likely followed its current hosts’ evolutionary paths for millennia. As such, it offers the opportunity to understand ecological, evolutionary, and environmental effects on infectious disease in wild populations, such as those responsible for many emergent infections threatening agriculture, wildlife, and human health. This is what the Early View Oikos paper “Elevational disease distribution in a natural plant-pathogen system: Insights from changes across host populations and climate” by Abbate & Antonovics is about. Below, is the rest of the summary of the study:
Darwin and Linnaeus were among the first to notice the affected plants with their dirty appearance and altered genders. The tiny culprit, a complex of species-specific fungi in the genus Microbotryum, and its lovely array of flowering Pink Family hosts, has since risen to prominence as a model system for studying everything from genome evolution to how parasites compete for hosts. The fungus works its way through the whole plant and into the flowers, where it takes over the structures that would normally produce pollen (or induces their formation in plants that were otherwise female!) – forcing the plant to produce fungal spores instead. Insect pollinators visit these flowers, whose attractive petals and sugary rewards often appear completely normal, and are tricked into carrying those spores to the next host. As this pollination process is how plants mate, the fungus is essentially a sexually-transmitted infection, behaving epidemiologically similar to diseases of humans or animals driven by either sexual or vector-mediated contact. An infected plant is not killed but sterilized, and has little choice but to keep flowering, year after year, propagating the insidious disease.
For one particularly widespread host, the bladder campion Silene vulgaris, endemic disease had only rarely been found outside of high-elevation European alpine habitats, despite its weedy presence across the continent. Many diseases are limited to particular habitats within the larger range of their hosts. The most obvious and arguably important example is malaria, which is devastating in the tropics but largely absent from latitudes closer to the poles. Many studies have predicted that as the global climate warms, malaria risk will increase in more densely populated temperate zones, largely in response to shifts in vector distribution. However, others have questioned whether rapid aridification may also reduce risk in currently affected areas with less public health infrastructure. As understanding disease emergence hinges on un-answered academic questions about what factors drive the distribution of disease, we set out to test whether the presence of our little anther-snatcher in Silene vulgaris was similarly limited by environmental factors. It was equally possible that the host populations were simply not as abundant or connected at lower elevations, or that not enough botanists noticed or reported the disease while cataloging plant occurrence.
To do this, we went to the eastern French Alps, recording host population locations, size, density, and of course, disease. Back in the lab, we were able to use the GPS point of each population to get their proximity to one-another, as well as summaries of climatic conditions. What we found was that indeed, despite being common at high elevations, the disease was exceptionally rare in populations below 1300 meters in elevation. Furthermore, the cool temperatures, high precipitation, and more stable climatic conditions of diseased locations explained this distribution even after correcting for the fact that disease was most common in larger populations, which were relatively more frequent at higher elevations. This study sets up the opportunity to investigate environmental, evolutionary potential, vector distributions, and host resistance effects on the distribution of infectious disease in a natural model species that poses little risk to human health, wildlife, or agriculture. Such studies will be crucial to understanding, and ultimately anticipating, how climatic perturbations may impact disease dynamics and emergence.
Shorter (ie, Twitter) version:
Fungal anther-smut disease in Silene vulgaris is restricted to host populations in high-elevation alpine climates.
Related website: Field assistant and undergraduate researcher Kerri Coon’s tumbler blog, documenting the 56 days she spent with me in the field tracking some of these populations. 56 reasons to be a biologist: http://kerri-lynn.tumblr.com/