Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology, Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, Texas A&M University, College Station 77843, U.S.A.
Accumulating evidence supports the idea that necrotrophic plant pathogens interact with their hosts by controlling cell death. Sclerotinia sclerotiorum is a necrotrophic ascomycete fungus with a broad host range (>400 species). Previously, we established that oxalic acid (OA) is an important pathogenicity determinant of this fungus. In this report, we describe a mechanism by which oxalate contributes to the pathogenic success of this fungus; namely, that OA induces a programmed cell death (PCD) response in plant tissue that is required for disease development. This response exhibits features associated with mammalian apoptosis, including DNA laddering and TUNEL reactive cells. Fungal mutants deficient in OA production are nonpathogenic, and apoptotic-like characteristics are not observed following plant inoculation. The induction of PCD by OA is independent of the pH-reducing abilities of this organic acid, which is required for sclerotial development. Moreover, oxalate also induces increased reactive oxygen species (ROS) levels in the plant, which correlate to PCD. When ROS induction is inhibited, apoptotic-like cell death induced by OA does not occur. Taken together, we show that Sclerotinia spp.-secreted OA is an elicitor of PCD in plants and is responsible for induction of apoptotic-like features in the plant during disease development. This PCD is essential for fungal pathogenicity and involves ROS. Thus, OA appears to function by triggering in the plant pathways responsible for PCD. Further, OA secretion by Sclerotinia spp. is not directly toxic but, more subtly, may function as a signaling molecule.