Most fungal genomes are poorly annotated, and many fungal traits of industrial and biomedical relevance are not well suited to classical genetic screens. Assigning genes to phenotypes on a genomic scale thus remains an urgent need in the field. We developed an approach to infer gene function from expression profiles of wild fungal isolates, and we applied our strategy to the filamentous fungus Neurospora crassa. Using transcriptome measurements in 70 strains from two well-defined clades of this microbe, we first identified 2,247 cases in which the expression of an unannotated gene rose and fell across N. crassa strains in parallel with the expression of well-characterized genes. We then used image analysis of hyphal morphologies, quantitative growth assays, and expression profiling to test the functions of four genes predicted from our population analyses. The results revealed two factors that influenced regulation of metabolism of nonpreferred carbon and nitrogen sources, a gene that governed hyphal architecture, and a gene that mediated amino acid starvation resistance. These findings validate the power of our population-transcriptomic approach for inference of novel gene function, and we suggest that this strategy will be of broad utility for genome-scale annotation in many fungal systems.
Via Bradford Condon, Jie Wang