Department of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology, Cornell University, 334 Plant Science Bldg., Ithaca, NY 14853, U.S.A.
Southern Corn Leaf Blight, one of the worst plant disease epidemics in modern history, was caused by Cochliobolus heterostrophus race T, which produces T-toxin, a determinant of high virulence to maize carrying Texas male sterile cytoplasm. The genetics of T-toxin production is complex and the evolutionary origin of associated genes is uncertain. It is known that ability to produce T-toxin requires three genes encoded at two unlinked loci, Tox1A and Tox1B, which map to the breakpoints of a reciprocal translocation. DNA associated with Tox1A and Tox1B sums to about 1.2 Mb of A+T rich, repeated DNA that is not found in less virulent race O or other Cochliobolus species. Here, we describe identification and targeted deletion of six additional genes, three mapping to Tox1A and three to Tox1B. Mutant screens indicate that all six genes are involved in T-toxin production and high virulence to maize. The nine known Tox1 genes encode two polyketide synthases (PKS), one decarboxylase, five dehydrogenases, and one unknown protein. Only two have a similar phylogenetic profile. To trace evolutionary history of one of the core PKS, DNA from more than 100 Dothideomycete species were screened for homologs. An ortholog (60% identity) was confirmed in Didymella zeae-maydis, which produces PM-toxin, a polyketide of similar structure and biological specificity as T-toxin. Only one additional Dothideomycete species, the dung ascomycete Delitschia winteri harbored a paralog. The unresolved evolutionary history and distinctive gene signature of the PKS (fast-evolving, discontinuous taxonomic distribution) leaves open the question of lateral or vertical transmission.