Strain origin drives virulence and persistence of Xylella fastidiosa in alfalfa
Generalist pathogens frequently exist as a complex of genetically differentiated strains, which can differ in virulence and transmissibility. A description of the extent to which strain variability mediates host species competence is needed to understand disease dynamics for systems with both host and pathogen strain diversity. This study tested the hypothesis that strain-specific variation of a generalist vector-borne plant pathogen, Xylella fastidiosa, affects disease severity in alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and competence of this crop as a reservoir host. Alfalfa seedlings were inoculated with one of 23 X. fastidiosa isolates collected from different hosts, eight identified as belonging to an almond strain, and the remainder from a grape strain. Pathogen population, symptom severity and infection incidence were compared over five successive harvests. Infected plant size, measured mainly by plant height, internode length and above ground biomass, was reduced up to 50% compared to buffer-inoculated controls, and more severe symptoms were observed at later harvests and for higher pathogen populations. Grape isolates had higher bacterial populations within alfalfa than almond isolates. In addition, infection with grape isolates resulted in more severe alfalfa stunting than that caused by almond isolates. Moreover, there was a strong positive relationship between isolate multiplication rate and both symptom severity and infection persistence (i.e. maintenance of chronic infection within host). Isolates with low initial populations had low incidence at the final harvest, with one isolate dying out altogether. The results showed that X. fastidiosa-genetic diversity contributed to variation in alfalfa disease severity. The results also suggest that pathogen strain may mediate host competence via differences in bacterial population density and persistence.