Plant Pathology, Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, University of Amsterdam, P.O. Box 94062, 1090 GB Amsterdam, The Netherlands
In the fungal kingdom, the ability to cause disease in plants appears to have arisen multiple times during evolution. In many cases, the ability to infect particular plant species depends on specific genes that distinguish virulent fungi from their sometimes closely related nonvirulent relatives. These genes encode host-determining “virulence factors,” including small, secreted proteins and enzymes involved in the synthesis of toxins. These virulence factors typically are involved in evolutionary arms races between plants and pathogens. We briefly summarize current knowledge of these virulence factors from several fungal species in terms of function, phylogenetic distribution, sequence variation, and genomic location. Second, we address some issues that are relevant to the evolution of virulence in fungi toward plants; in particular, horizontal gene transfer and the genomic organization of virulence genes.