Phytophthora: an ancient, historic, biologically and structurally cohesive and evolutionarily successful generic concept in need of preservation

Clive Brasier (Lead / Corresponding author), Bruno Scanu, David Cooke, Thomas Jung

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The considerable economic and social impact of the oomycete genus Phytophthora is well known. In response to evidence that all downy mildews (DMs) reside phylogenetically within Phytophthora, rendering Phytophthora paraphyletic, a proposal has been made to split the genus into multiple new genera. We have reviewed the status of the genus and its relationship to the DMs. Despite a substantial increase in the number of described species and improvements in molecular phylogeny the Phytophthora clade structure has remained stable since first demonstrated in 2000. Currently some 200 species are distributed across twelve major clades in a relatively tight monophyletic cluster. In our assessment of 196 species for twenty morphological and behavioural criteria the clades show good biological cohesion. Saprotrophy, necrotrophy and hemi-biotrophy of woody and non-woody roots, stems and foliage occurs across the clades. Phylogenetically less related clades often show strong phenotypic and behavioural similarities and no one clade or group of clades shows the synapomorphies that might justify a unique generic status. We propose the clades arose from the migration and worldwide radiation ~ 140 Mya (million years ago) of an ancestral Gondwanan Phytophthora population, resulting in geographic isolation and clade divergence through drift on the diverging continents combined with adaptation to local hosts, climatic zones and habitats. The extraordinary flexibility of the genus may account for its global 'success'. The 20 genera of the obligately biotrophic, angiosperm-foliage specialised DMs evolved from Phytophthora at least twice via convergent evolution, making the DMs as a group polyphyletic and Phytophthora paraphyletic in cladistic terms. The long phylogenetic branches of the DMs indicate this occurred rather rapidly, via paraphyletic evolutionary 'jumps'. Such paraphyly is common in successful organisms. The proposal to divide Phytophthora appears more a device to address the issue of the convergent evolution of the DMs than the structure of Phytophthora per se. We consider it non-Darwinian, putting the emphasis on the emergent groups (the DMs) rather than the progenitor (Phytophthora) and ignoring the evolutionary processes that gave rise to the divergence. Further, the generic concept currently applied to the DMs is narrower than that between some closely related Phytophthora species. Considering the biological and structural cohesion of Phytophthora, its historic and social impacts and its importance in scientific communication and biosecurity protocol, we recommend that the current broad generic concept is retained by the scientific community.

Original languageEnglish
Article number12
Number of pages25
JournalIMA Fungus
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2022


  • Oomycetes
  • Downy mildews
  • Economic impact
  • Molecular phylogeny
  • Paraphyly
  • Cladism
  • Biosecurity


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