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Can disease resistance evolve independently at different ages? Genetic variation in age-dependent resistance to disease in three wild plant species


Bruns, Emily et al. (2022), Can disease resistance evolve independently at different ages? Genetic variation in age-dependent resistance to disease in three wild plant species, Dryad, Dataset,


1. Juveniles are typically less resistant (more susceptible) to infectious disease than adults, and this difference in susceptibility can help fuel the spread of pathogens in age-structured populations. However evolutionary explanations for this variation in resistance across age remain to be tested.

2. One hypothesis is that natural selection has optimized resistance to peak at ages where disease exposure is greatest. A central assumption of this hypothesis is that hosts have the capacity to evolve resistance independently at different ages. This would mean that hosts populations have a) standing genetic variation in resistance at both juvenile and adult stages, and b) that this variation is not strongly correlated between age-classes so that selection acting at one age does not produce a correlated response at the other age

3. Here we evaluated the capacity of three wild plant species (Silene latifolia, S. vulgaris, and Dianthus pavonius) to evolve resistance to their anther-smut pathogens (Microbotryum fungi), independently at different ages. The pathogen is pollinator-transmitted, and thus exposure risk is considered to be highest at the adult flowering stage.

4. Within each species we grew families to different ages, inoculated individuals with anther smut, and evaluated the effects of age, family and their interaction on infection.

5. In two of the plant species, S. latifolia and D. pavonius, resistance to smut at the juvenile stage was not correlated with resistance to smut at the adult stage. In all three species, we show there are significant age*family interaction effects, indicating that age-specificity of resistance varies among the plant families.

6. Synthesis: These results indicate that different mechanisms likely underlie resistance at juvenile and adult stages and support the hypothesis that resistance can evolve independently in response to differing selection pressures as hosts age. Taken together our results provide new insight into the structure of genetic variation in age-dependent resistance in three well-studied wild host-pathogen systems.


For experimental setup and data collection methods please see the methods section of the manuscript.

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National Science Foundation, Award: 1936334

National Institutes of Health, Award: R01GM140457

National Institutes of Health, Award: R01GM122061