The Irish potato famine pathogen Phytophthora infestans originated in central Mexico rather than the Andes
Phytophthora infestans is a destructive plant pathogen best known for causing the disease that triggered the Irish potato famine and remains the most costly potato pathogen to manage worldwide. Identification of P. infestan's elusive center of origin is critical to understanding the mechanisms of repeated global emergence of this pathogen. There are two competing theories, placing the origin in either South America or in central Mexico, both of which are centers of diversity of Solanum host plants. To test these competing hypotheses, we conducted detailed phylogeographic and approximate Bayesian computation analyses, which are suitable approaches to unraveling complex demographic histories. Our analyses used microsatellite markers and sequences of four nuclear genes sampled from populations in the Andes, Mexico, and elsewhere. To infer the ancestral state, we included the closest known relatives Phytophthora phaseoli, Phytophthora mirabilis, and Phytophthora ipomoeae, as well as the interspecific hybrid Phytophthora andina. We did not find support for an Andean origin of P. infestans; rather, the sequence data suggest a Mexican origin. Our findings support the hypothesis that populations found in the Andes are descendants of the Mexican populations and reconcile previous findings of ancestral variation in the Andes. Although centers of origin are well documented as centers of evolution and diversity for numerous crop plants, the number of plant pathogens with a known geographic origin are limited. This work has important implications for our understanding of the coevolution of hosts and pathogens, as well as the harnessing of plant disease resistance to manage late blight.