Clues to an evolutionary mystery: the genes for T-toxin, enabler of the devastating 1970 Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic, are present in ancestral species, suggesting an ancient origin
The Southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) epidemic of 1970 devastated fields of T-cytoplasm corn planted in monoculture throughout the eastern United States. The epidemic was driven by race T, a previously unseen race of Cochliobolus heterostrophus. A second fungus, Phyllosticta zeae-maydis, with the same biological specificity, appeared coincidentally. Race T produces T-toxin, while Phyllosticta zeae-maydis produces PM-toxin, both host-selective polyketide toxins necessary for supervirulence. The present abundance of genome sequences offers an opportunity to tackle the evolutionary origins of T- and PM- toxin biosynthetic genes, previously thought unique to these species. Using the C. heterostrophus genes as probes, we identified orthologs in six additional Dothideomycete and three Eurotiomycete species. In stark contrast to the genetically fragmented race T Tox1 locus that encodes these genes, all newly found Tox1-like genes in other species reside at a single collinear locus. This compact arrangement, phylogenetic analyses, comparisons of Tox1 protein tree topology to a species tree, and Tox1 gene characteristics suggest that the locus is ancient and that some species, including C. heterostrophus, gained Tox1 by horizontal gene transfer. C. heterostrophus and Phyllosticta zeae-maydis did not exchange Tox1 DNA at the time of the SCLB epidemic, but how they acquired Tox1 remains uncertain. The presence of additional genes in Tox1-like clusters of other species, although not in C. heterostrophus and Phyllosticta zeae-maydis, suggests that the metabolites produced differ from T- and PM-toxin.