MSUToday
Published: July 13, 2017

New techniques pinpoint evolution in fungi

Contact(s): Kendall Teare Yale University kendall.teare@yale.edu, Layne Cameron Media Communications office: (517) 353-8819 cell: (765) 748-4827 Layne.Cameron@cabs.msu.edu

Michigan State University and Yale University scientists have illuminated a successful new strategy for pinpointing fungi genes responsible for the evolution of certain biological processes. The results appear in the current issue of PLoS Genetics.

To better understand the effects of genes on the evolution of an organism, large teams of biologists have previously worked to “knock out” – or turn off – thousands to tens of thousands of genes within the genome, seeing if they can perceive an effect that the gene knock-out has on the organism.

“The fungus that causes wheat head blight, a devastating pathogen across the U.S. and around the world, is distributed by spores ejected from fruiting bodies,” said Frances Trail, MSU fungal biologist. “This research has identified genes that are uniquely used by this species to form and distribute spores, and thus the disease, over many miles. We are moving forward with a focus on these genes to generate novel modes of control targeted at spore formation and distribution.”

However, this new work demonstrates a more precise shortcut for researchers: If they first identify identical genes present across different species that have increased in gene expression during their recent evolutionary development, the scientists can “knock out” this smaller targeted set to reveal genes underlying an organism’s phenotype.

This is exactly what Trail and Jeffrey Townsend of Yale did, discovering many genes that play roles in the development of fungal fruiting bodies.

“We’ve now demonstrated – for the first time – that you can predict genes that relate to novel phenotypes by estimating which genes have increased their expression recently in evolutionary time,” Townsend said.

This discovery has important implications for efficiently discovering the genetic basis of evolved traits, including desirable traits in agriculture and animal husbandry and undesirable traits in invasive species and in plant, animal and human pathogens, say the researchers.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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