Understanding the mechanisms by which diversity is maintained in pathogen populations is critical for epidemiological predictions. Life-history trade-offs have been proposed as a hypothesis for explaining long-term maintenance of variation in pathogen populations, yet the empirical evidence supporting trade-offs has remained mixed. This is in part due to the challenges of documenting successive pathogen life-history stages in many pathosystems. Moreover, little is understood of the role of natural enemies of pathogens on their life-history evolution.
We characterize life-history-trait variation and possible trade-offs in fungal pathogen Podosphaera plantaginis infecting the host plant Plantago lanceolata. We measured the timing of both asexual and sexual stages, as well as resistance to a hyperparasite of seven pathogen strains that vary in their prevalence in nature. We find significant variation among the strains in their life-history traits that constitute the infection cycle, but no evidence for trade-offs among pathogen development stages, apart from fast pathogen growth coninciding with fast hyperparasite growth. Also, the seemingly least fit pathogen strain was the most prevalent in the nature.
We conclude that in the nature environmental variation, and interactions with the antagonists of pathogens themselves may maintain variation in pathogen populations.