Background: Studies on host-pathogen interactions in a range of pathosystems have revealed an array of mechanisms by which plants reduce the efficiency of pathogenesis. While R-gene mediated resistance confers highly effective defense responses against pathogen invasion, quantitative resistance is associated with intermediate levels of resistance that reduces disease progress. To test the hypothesis that specific loci affect distinct stages of fungal pathogenesis, a set of maize introgression lines was used for mapping and characterization of quantitative trait loci (QTL) conditioning resistance to Setosphaeria turcica, the causal agent of northern leaf blight (NLB). To better understand the nature of quantitative resistance, the identified QTL were further tested for three secondary hypotheses: (1) that disease QTL differ by host developmental stage; (2) that their performance changes across environments; and (3) that they condition broad-spectrum resistance.
Results: Among a set of 82 introgression lines, seven lines were confirmed as more resistant or susceptible than B73. Two NLB QTL were validated in BC4F2 segregating populations and advanced introgression lines. These loci, designated qNLB1.02 and qNLB1.06, were investigated in detail by comparing the introgression lines with B73 for a series of macroscopic and microscopic disease components targeting different stages of NLB development. Repeated greenhouse and field trials revealed that qNLB1.06(Tx303) (the Tx303 allele at bin 1.06) reduces the efficiency of fungal penetration, while qNLB1.02(B73) (the B73 allele at bin 1.02) enhances the accumulation of callose and phenolics surrounding infection sites, reduces hyphal growth into the vascular bundle and impairs the subsequent necrotrophic colonization in the leaves. The QTL were equally effective in both juvenile and adult plants; qNLB1.06(Tx303) showed greater effectiveness in the field than in the greenhouse. In addition to NLB resistance, qNLB1.02(B73) was associated with resistance to Stewart's wilt and common rust, while qNLB1.06(Tx303) conferred resistance to Stewart's wilt. The non-specific resistance may be attributed to pleiotropy or linkage.
Conclusions: Our research has led to successful identification of two reliably-expressed QTL that can potentially be utilized to protect maize from S. turcica in different environments. This approach to identifying and dissecting quantitative resistance in plants will facilitate the application of quantitative resistance in crop protection.