Biotic vs. Abiotic - Distinguishing Disease Problems

Plant problems are caused by living organisms, such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, insects, mites, and animals.

Abiotic disorders are caused by nonliving factors, such as drought stress, sunscald, freeze injury, wind injury, chemical injury, nutrient deficiency, or improper cultural practices, such as overwatering or planting conditions.

Unfortunately, the damage caused by these various living and nonliving agents can appear very similar. Even with close observation of symptoms, accurate diagnosis can be difficult. For example, browning of leaves on an oak tree caused by drought stress may appear similar to leaf browning caused by oak wilt, a serious vascular disease, or the browning cause by anthracnose, a fairly minor leaf disease.

When the cause of a plant health problem is not readily diagnosed, it's important to take a systematic approach and carefully consider site conditions, weather conditions, care of the plant, and the known biotic disease agents of that plant. The first important step is to determine the identity of the plant and its requirements for healthy growth.

There are a few clues to look for that will help you distinguish between abiotic disorder and biotic disease problems.

  • Abiotic damage often occurs on many plant species. Drought stress or chemical injury will likely cause damage on several types of plants. In contrast, biotic disease problems are more limited to a certain species. The fungi that cause tomato leaf blight do not cause damage on sweet corn, for example.
  • Abiotic damage does not spread from plant to plant over time. Biotic diseases can spread throughout one plant and also may spread to neighboring plants of the same species. Wind-blown rain is a common way for disease agents to spread from plant to plant.
  • Biotic diseases sometimes show physical evidence (signs) of the pathogen, such as fungal growth, bacterial ooze, or nematode cysts, or the presence of mites or insects. Abiotic diseases do not show the presence of disease signs.

An important take-home message is to remember that there may be several factors, abiotic and biotic, contributing to a plant health problem. Examples include:

In the landscape, older trees that are stressed by drought conditions are often troubled by fungal canker diseases. Another example is the presence of decay fungus at the base of the tree. The primary problem may have been mower damage, which subsequently allowed entry of the fungus. To learn about terms used to describe plant problems (including plant disease, insect damage, and disorders) see the Glossary or the publication Identifying Tree Problems available at the extension store to download for free.

In the garden, greenhouse, high tunnel or field, tomatoes may develop nutrient deficiencies, often a problem that may be compound with the fungal disease leaf mold when growing tomatoes on high tunnels. Resources: Tomato diseases and disordersmicronutrients

The identification of the primary problem and other contributing factors is a necessary step in managing the problem or avoiding it in the future.

Keep in mind that there could be one or more or several factors affecting the plant’s health. Plant diseases and insects often preferentially attack plants that are stressed by an abiotic factor. Addressing the underlying abiotic stressors when possible, and knowing the causal agent (pathogen, insect or stressor) will give you the necessary information to make informed decisions.

If you need help with a plant problem, The Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic (PIDC)  is a laboratory for diagnosing plant problems and diseases. Representative samples with detailed background information may be submitted to the clinic. A fee is assessed for this service. Visit the clinic website for current services, submission forms and fees at

Last reviewed:
December 2021

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Yard and Garden, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on April 27, 2018. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.