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Plant Disease Epidemiology: Temporal Aspects

Phil A. Arneson
Cornell University


Arneson, P.A. 2001 Plant Disease Epidemiology: Temporal Aspects. The Plant Health Instructor. DOI: 10.1094/PHI-A-2001-0524-01. (Revised 2011).

From the time that the first farmers began to cultivate plants, people have been concerned with reducing the crop losses caused by plant diseases. Through the evolution of our crop production technologies over the last ten thousand years, the principles of plant disease management have been woven into the fabric of our civilization. The decisions of when, where, and what to plant and the development of specific cultural practices have been based on countless generations of trial and error. Without a doubt, the successful farming methods depended upon being able to suppress the development of plant pathogens, even if the farmer had no particular awareness of the underlying biological mechanisms that led to her or his success. Everywhere in the world, either directly or indirectly, our attempts to manage plant disease have determined what we eat and where we have settled.

This unit describes how plant disease develops through time, and it introduces mathematical models of plant disease epidemics. Examples from the published literature show how these models can be used to help make management decisions.

Plant Disease Epidemiology?

Plant disease epidemiology? How can there be an epidemic on plants? (Gr. epi, on; demos, people) Well, strictly speaking, we should call it an epiphytotic, but the term "epidemic" has become so widely used in reference to plant disease and so entrenched in the phytopathological literature that we are forced to give in and leave "epiphytotic" to the etymological purists. So if we accept "epidemic" to apply to plant populations, then "epidemiology" refers to the study of the development of disease in those populations. However, these terms still are technically imprecise and sometimes confusing because of their common usage. "Epidemic" is often used in such expressions as "epidemic proportions" to mean a high level of disease. "Epidemic" also is commonly used to denote a sudden and rapid or a widespread development of disease, implying that if development is slow or it is spatially limited there is no epidemic.

Logistic Curve
The Dynamics of Plant Disease

In this text we will use "epidemic" to denote the dynamics of disease, that is, the change in the amount of disease with time. By "amount" of disease we mean either incidence (the number of plants or plant parts affected), severity (the amount of tissue affected), or a combination of both. By this definition there can be fast epidemics or slow epidemics, and there can even be "negative" epidemics, in which there is a decrease in the amount of disease with time. For example, if we are using the proportion of leaves infected as a measure of disease incidence, and during a dry spell we get new, healthy leaves forming while the infected ones drop off, we could get a negative change in the amount of disease.

Disease Focus
The Spatial Distribution of Plant Disease

After a period of time, a disease that started with a single infected plant will commonly appear as a "focus", with the density of lesions or of infected plants highest in the center and diminishing radially outward.

Associated with the change in the amount of plant disease with time is a change in the spatial distribution of lesions or of infected plants. A good working definition of epidemic, therefore, is a change in plant disease in time and space.

The term endemic is sometimes used (erroneously) to mean the opposite of "epidemic", that is, to denote constant disease, because in areas where the pathogen and its host have coevolved over long periods of time, they often have reached an equilibrium where there is little change in the amount of disease with time. In the strict sense "endemic" means native to a particular area, and therefore we can have epidemics of endemic diseases.

Next: Disease Progress