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Reduced Virulence of an Introduced Forest Pathogen over 50 Years.


Pathogen incursions are a major impediment for global forest health. How pathogens and forest trees coexist over time, without pathogens simply killing their long-lived hosts, is a critical but unanswered question. The Dothistroma Needle Blight pathogen Dothistroma septosporum was introduced into New Zealand in the 1960s and remains a low-diversity, asexual population, providing a unique opportunity to analyze the evolution of a forest pathogen. Isolates of D. septosporum collected from commercial pine forests over 50 years were compared at whole-genome and phenotype levels. Limited genome diversity and increased diversification among recent isolates support the premise of a single introduction event. Isolates from the 1960s show significantly elevated virulence against Pinus radiata seedlings and produce higher levels of the virulence factor dothistromin compared to isolates collected in the 1990s and 2000s. However, later isolates have no increased tolerance to copper, used in fungicide treatments of infested forests and traditionally assumed to be a strong selection pressure. The isolated New Zealand population of this forest pathogen therefore appears to have become less virulent over time, likely in part to maintain the viability of its long-lived host. This finding has broad implications for forest health and highlights the benefits of long-term pathogen surveys.

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