Fungal diseases of plants represent one of the most eminent threats to agriculture. Given the food needs of a growing world population and that more and more crops are devoted to fuel production, the necessity to develop crops with better resistance to disease is increasing. To accomplish this, the mechanisms that plant pathogenic fungi use to colonize plants need to be elucidated. As of now, there are only few examples/models in which this can be done on a functional, genome-wide level, taking into account both the pathogen and its host plant. The fungus Ustilago maydis (U. maydis) is one of these examples. It is a member of the smut fungi: a large group of parasites infecting mostly grasses, including several important crop plants such as maize (Figure 1B), wheat, barley, and sugar cane. Smut fungi are biotrophs, i.e., parasites that need the living host plant to complete their sexual life cycle. They do not establish prominent feeding structures like the related, haustoria-forming rust fungi. During penetration, the host plasma membrane invaginates and completely encases the intracellular hyphae (Figure 1A), establishing an extended interaction zone mediating the exchange of molecules between fungus and host. In contrast to most smut fungi that cause a systemic infection, remaining symptomless until the plant flowers, U. maydis can infect all above-ground parts of the maize plant but fails to spread systemically. U. maydis induces local tumors in which spores develop (Figure 1B) – a unique feature that allows detection of symptoms in corn seedlings less than a week after syringe infection with high levels of inoculum. This, together with the toolbox developed for reverse genetics, cell biology, and functional studies, has contributed to its status as a model for biotrophic basidiomycete fungi. Here the current level of our understanding of the elaborate molecular crosstalk between U. maydis and its host plant will be discussed.
Via Kamoun Lab @ TSL