Control of foliar diseases in barley: towards an integrated approach
Although Darwin knew of plant diseases, he did not study them as part of his analysis of natural selection. Effective plant disease control has only been developed after his death. This article explores the relevance of Darwin's ideas to three problem areas with respect to diseases caused by fungi: emergence of new diseases, loss of disease resistance bred into plants and development of fungicide resistance. Darwin's concept of change through natural or artificial selection relied on selection of many small changes, but subsequent genetic research has shown that change can also occur through large steps. Appearance of new diseases can involve gene duplication, transfer or recombination, but all evidence points to both host plant resistance and fungicide susceptibility being overcome through point mutations. Because the population size of diseases such as rusts and powdery and downy mildews is so large, all possible point mutations are likely to occur daily, even during moderate epidemics. Overcoming control measures therefore reflects the overall fitness of these mutants, and much resource effort is being directed towards assessment of their fitness, both in the presence and in the absence of selection. While recent developments in comparative genomics have caused some revision of Darwin's ideas, experience in managing plant disease control measures clearly demonstrates the relevance of concepts he introduced 150 years ago. It also reveals the remarkable speed and the practical impact of adaptation in wild microorganism populations to changes in their environment, and the difficulty of stopping or delaying such adaptation.