When barley, wheat or oat leaf epidermal cells were attacked by their appropriate forma specialis (f.sp.) of Blumeria graminis DC. Speer (f.sp. hordei, tritici and avenae, respectively), many attempted penetrations succeeded, functional haustoria were formed and very few plant cells died. When attacked by either of the two possible inappropriate ff.spp., penetration attempts failed in association with papilla deposition by epidermal cells, attacked cells died, or if visible haustoria were formed the plant cell died very soon afterwards. Double inoculation experiments were performed where each cereal species was first attacked by its appropriate f.sp., as inducer, and later by the different ff.spp. as challenger. Infection by the appropriate inducer profoundly affected cellular responses to challenger attack. Suppression of defensive responses was dramatic within epidermal cells containing the inducer haustorium, evident to some extent in adjacent cells, but undetectable at two cells distance. Suppression of penetration resistance allowed most challenger attacks, even by inappropriate ff.spp., to form a haustorium. Furthermore, death of penetrated epidermal cells was also suppressed so that haustoria of the inappropriate ff.spp. functioned to support colony development. In oat, delayed epidermal cell death prevented full colony development by inappropriate ff.spp., but in barley and wheat, no cell death was apparent by four days after inoculation and colonies of the inappropriate ff.spp. produced extensive hyphae, secondary haustoria and conidial chains. (C) 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.