Science Spain Salamanca, Salamanca, Thursday, May 16 of 2013, 13:10

A gene helping fungi to attack plants

An article published in 'PLOS ONE' proves that a gene of plants was transferred to fungi ancestors of the Colletotrichum genus and currently makes them harmful to crops

JPA/BAC/DICYT Scientists from CIALE (a center for agricultural research at the Universidad de Salamanca, Spain) have published an article in the prestigious PLOS ONE contributing to fight diseases in plants of agricultural interest. The research team, led by Michael Thon, has identified a gene that passed from plants to ancestors of Colletotichum pathogenic fungi, a very harmful species to many crops. The presence of the gene could make attacks to plants easier.

The phenomenon described in the article is a horizontal gene transfer, that is, among different species. “Normally, genes are transferred vertically (from parents to descendants)”, as DiCYT was told by the American researcher working in CIALE’s Department of Genetics. “Horizontal gene transfer is not common in eukaryotic cells, but there is evidence proving it happens and we want to know if it plays any role in fungi’s pathogenicity”, that is, its role in causing diseases.

The gene identified is called CLPS (Colletotrichum plat-like subtilisin) and it is a protease of the subtilisin family. These scientists are studying its role that could be linked to molecular mimicry. As it used to belong to plants, they identify it as their own and do no activate their defense in the presence of the pathogenic fungus.

The research team obtained this information thanks to comparative genomics: analyzing two different genomes, in this case plant and fungi genomes, and establishing common features. So, they identified this gene in Colletotrichum fungi, but this research may lead to similar studies. “When we identify a gene, we go to the laboratory in order to study its functions,” the expert states.

The Role of Bioinformatics

Bioinformatics is essential in this process since it allows to process large amounts of data. The team, working hand in hand with American researchers, is to sequence several strains of these fungi. Computer work is the first step to compare genomes, then, hypotheses are tested in the laboratory.

“Basically, we are trying to identify new pathogenically involved biochemical pathways. We expect some of these will be useful to develop new strategies to tackle plant diseases, because many factors remain unknown,” Michel Thon explains.

Detrimental to All Crops

This research area is of great economic relevance because Colletotrichum fungi attack all types of crops: maize, strawberries, beans… and causes important losses worldwide.

CIALE’s research team is particularly concerned because of phytopathological fungi producing anthracnose in maize. “We have proposed a research project to establish if it is affecting Spain, because it has already been found in some European countries and, it will come here over the years, but we can be prepared,” the researcher states.




Vinicio Danilo Armijos Jaramillo, Walter Alberto Vargas, Serenella Ana Sukno, Michael R. Thon. Horizontal transfer of a subtilisin gene from plants into an ancestor of the plant pathogenic fungal genus colletotrichum. PLOS ONE, 2013. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059078