Degree of host susceptibility in the initial disease outbreak influences subsequent epidemic spread.
Disease epidemics typically begin as an outbreak of a relatively small, spatially explicit population of infected individuals (focus), in which disease prevalence increases and rapidly spreads into the uninfected, at-risk population. Studies of epidemic spread typically address factors influencing disease spread through the at-risk population, but the initial outbreak may strongly influence spread of the subsequent epidemic. We initiated wheat stripe rust Puccinia striiformis f. sp. tritici epidemics to assess the influence of the focus on final disease prevalence when the degree of disease susceptibility differed between the at-risk and focus populations. When the focus/at-risk plantings consisted of partially genetic resistant and susceptible cultivars, final disease prevalence was statistically indistinguishable from epidemics produced by the focus cultivar in monoculture. In these experimental epidemics, disease prevalence was not influenced by the transition into an at-risk population that differed in disease susceptibility. Instead, the focus appeared to exert a dominant influence on the subsequent epidemic. Final disease prevalence was not consistently attributable to either the focus or the at-risk population when focus/at-risk populations were planted in a factorial set-up with a mixture (c. 28% susceptible and 72% resistant) and susceptible individuals. In these experimental epidemics, spatial heterogeneity in disease susceptibility within the at-risk population appeared to counter the dominant influence of the focus. Cessation of spore production from the focus (through fungicide/glyphosate application) after 1.3 generations of stripe rust spread did not reduce final disease prevalence, indicating that the focus influence on disease spread is established early in the epidemic. Synthesis and applications. Our experiments indicated that outbreak conditions can be highly influential on epidemic spread, even when disease resistance in the at-risk population is greater than that of the focus. Disease control treatments administered shortly after the initial outbreak within the focus may either prevent an epidemic from occurring or reduce its severity.