Plants, parasites and infectious disease risk

The interplay between changes in temperature, biodiversity, and ecology needs to be considered to predict how global climate change influences infectious disease risk in plants.

Pseudoflowers on cypress spurge plants (Euphorbia cyparissias) – which are produced when the plants are infected by the fungal parasite, Uromyces – are a common disease symptom in the area of southeast Switzerland studied by Halliday, Jalo, and Laine. Image credit: Fletcher Halliday (CC BY 4.0)

Climate change is causing shifts in the ecology and biodiversity of different world regions at unprecedented rates. Global warming is also linked with changes in the risk for certain infectious diseases in humans, but also in animals and plants. There are several possible mechanisms for this. For one thing, changing weather patterns may affect how pathogens grow and reproduce. For another, the distribution ranges of animal and plant hosts of certain disease-causing pathogens are changing because of global warming. This means that the distributions of pathogens are also changing, and so is the severity of the diseases that they cause.

Increasing temperatures may also influence the physiological traits that make host species suitable for pathogens. This is because the traits that allow species to survive or adapt to changes in their environment may also make them better at hosting and transmitting the pathogens that cause disease. For example, in plant communities, rising temperatures could favor species with faster growth rates, quicker reproduction and high dispersal, and these traits are often associated with more efficient spread of disease.

Despite a lot of research into the effects of climate, it remains unclear how temperature, pathogen growth and reproduction, and host species’ traits and distributions combine and interact to alter infectious disease risk, especially in wild plant communities. To investigate this, Halliday, Jalo and Laine studied an area in southeast Switzerland where natural temperature and biodiversity change gradually through the region. The aim was to explore how relationships between plant biodiversity, pathogens and disease risk change with temperature, and to understand whether environmental or biological factors influence infectious disease risk more.

Halliday, Jalo and Laine measured the levels of fungal diseases found in the leaves of plant communities spanning 1,100 meters of elevation, showing that higher temperatures increase disease risk both directly and indirectly. Directly, higher temperatures increased pathogen growth and reproduction, and indirectly, they influenced which plants were present and therefore able to act as disease hosts. The results also indicated that temperature can affect how the traits of plants drive the transmission rates of fungal pathogens. Important predictors of disease risk were traits relating to the growth rate of host plants, which tended to increase in areas with low elevation where the surface of the soil was warm.

This study represents the first analysis, in wild plants, of how changing temperatures, the traits of shifting host species, and resident parasite populations interact to impact infectious disease risk. The insights Halliday, Jalo and Laine provided could aid in predicting how global climate change will influence infectious disease risk.