Discovery of a gene that turns most fungi into pathogens presents chemists with a target for fungicides that could bring relief to many arable farmers, vegetable growers and people

  • 11
  • OCT
  • 2017

Not luck of the draw exactly but it was a random mutation in a convenient host that led to the discovery of a gene responsible for fungal disease that wrecks up to one fifth of the world’s cereal production, or hundreds of millions of tonnes of crops.

Near identical genes are also present in the fungi that cause vegetables to rot, trees to die and people to scratch, itch or struggle to breathe.

Researchers were screening genes of the wheat pathogen, Zymoseptoria tritici, which causes Septoria leaf blotch, when they noticed one specimen not developing hyphae, or filaments, that are essential to enable the fungus to invade its host.

“We were trying to identify loss of virulence through random mutations of the genome, with one mutation per individual present in over 1000 specimens” recalls Jason Rudd, a molecular pathologist at Rothamsted Research. “Then noticed the failing hyphae in one of them and identified the affected gene with a mutation slap bang in the middle of it.”

Septoria hyphae and leaf blotch in wheat - credit Rothamsted Research

Septoria fungus naturally develops hyphae (top left) that spread across wheat and cause leaf blotch (top right), but not in mutant form without a crucial gene (bottom)

The gene codes for a protein, a glycosyltransferase (ZtGT2), that enables the fungal hyphae to grow and spread across the surface of a plant, says Rudd, who led the research team from Rothamsted. Their findings are reported today in the journal, PLOS Pathogens.

“The protein is likely involved in producing complex carbohydrates that seem to act as a lubricant, reducing surface friction as the hyphae spread, or as structural components in the hyphae’s cell wall,” says Rudd. Without the protein, the hyphae fail and the fungus stalls.

The research team also benefited from this pathogen’s ability to grow in different forms (pleomorphism), as yeast and as filaments. It meant the team could see the mutant fungus growing naturally as a yeast before then failing to develop hyphae when presented with a surface to spread across.

Growth of Septoria and genetic mutant - credit Rothamsted Research

Without a surface, natural and mutant Septoria fungi grow as yeast (A+E), and develop “aerial” hyphae as temperature rises (B+F); in water droplets, both types form normal hyphae (C+G); with a surface, the natural or wild type fungus develops hyphae (D) but the mutant tries and fails (H)

“Had we not been investigating a pleomorphic fungus, we might have assumed that we had damaged the fungus in some way when the filaments failed to grow or that there had been some experimental aberration,” notes Rudd.

Subsequent analysis revealed that the same gene, or a near-identical orthologue, is present in more than 800 genomes from taxonomically diverse fungi, many of which infect plants and humans. However, it is not present in all pathogenic fungi, notably Puccinia rust fungi, which also infect wheat.

The next stage is to characterise the rogue protein, glycosyltransferase. “We need to know what it is actually making, and how it works, which would then allow us to know how to attack it,” says Rudd. “The aim would be to develop a fungicidal spray (because the gene is not present in plants or animals) to stun spores before they become pathogenic.”

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) provides strategic funding for Rothamsted Research.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.