Agriculture played a significant role in increasing the number of pathogen species and in expanding their geographic range during the last 10,000 years. We tested the hypothesis that a fungal pathogen of cereals and grasses emerged at the time of domestication of cereals in the Fertile Crescent and subsequently speciated after adaptation to its hosts. Rhynchosporium secalis, originally described from rye, causes an important disease on barley called scald, although it also infects other species of Hordeum and Agropyron. Phylogenetic analyses based on four DNA sequence loci identified three host-associated lineages that were confirmed by cross-pathogenicity tests. Bayesian analyses of divergence time suggested that the three lineages emerged between ∼1200 to 3600 years before present (B.P.) with a 95% highest posterior density ranging from 100 to 12,000 years B.P. depending on the implemented clock models. The coalescent inference of demographic history revealed a very recent population expansion for all three pathogens. We propose that Rhynchosporium on barley, rye, and Agropyron host species represent three cryptic pathogen species that underwent independent evolution and ecological divergence by host-specialization. We postulate that the recent emergence of these pathogens followed host shifts. The subsequent population expansions followed the expansion of the cultivated host populations and accompanying expansion of the weedy Agropyron spp. found in fields of cultivated cereals. Hence, agriculture played a major role in the emergence of the scald diseases, the adaptation of the pathogens to new hosts and their worldwide dissemination.
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