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Plant pathogen genetically tailors attacks to each part of host, say Stanford researchers
Date:4/14/2010

corn smut infected a given part of a plant was the potential for growth of that particular type of tissue. Greater potential for continued growth correlated with more intense infections of corn smut and bigger, more plentiful tumors.

The key aspect was the potential if a mutant grew only small leaves and then quickly stopped growing, the corn smut wasn't interested, even if there was sufficient area to host some tumors.

Walbot tested how various mutant strains of corn smut behaved when infecting normal maize plants. She discovered that a strain that was highly effective in causing tumors in, say, the tassels might be completely ineffective in triggering tumors in a seedling. That told her that different genes in the fungus were involved depending on which part of the maize the fungus was attacking.

"We found genetic evidence from both the pathogen and the host that depending on the growth potential, in an organ-specific way, of both the pathogen and the host, you could modulate the number of tumors," Walbot said.

The team then set to work with DNA microarrays, lab tools that can screen thousands of genes at a time and determine which ones are active and which are not. The microarray work confirmed and quantified the results of their earlier experiments corn smut was indeed situationally selective, to a high degree. Less than a third of its genes were consistently activated regardless of which organ of the maize plant it was infecting.

"We had proof from the microarray that paralleled the genetic proof; that is, that there is organ-specific expression by maize in response to corn smut, and corn smut expresses a specific suite of genes depending on where it is in the plant," Walbot said.

Corn smut, though a common pathogen, does not devastate maize crops and so relatively little work had been done by plant pathology researchers to study it. In Mexico, the fungus is called "huitlacoche," and the tumors, which are
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Contact: Louis Bergeron
louisb3@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert  

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