Background: Plant fungal pathogens can rapidly evolve and adapt to new environmental conditions in response to sudden changes of host populations in agro-ecosystems. However, the genomic basis of their host adaptation, especially at the forma specialis level, remains unclear.
Results: We sequenced two isolates each representing Puccinia striiformis f. sp. tritici (Pst) and P. striiformis f. sp. hordei (Psh), different formae speciales of the stripe rust fungus P. striiformis highly adapted to wheat and barley, respectively. The divergence of Pst and Psh, estimated to start 8.12 million years ago, has been driven by high nucleotide mutation rates. The high genomic variation within dikaryotic urediniospores of P. striiformis has provided raw genetic materials for genome evolution. No specific gene families have enriched in either isolate, but extensive gene loss events have occurred in both Pst and Psh after the divergence from their most recent common ancestor. A large number of isolate-specific genes were identified, with unique genomic features compared to the conserved genes, including 1) significantly shorter in length; 2) significantly less expressed; 3) significantly closer to transposable elements; and 4) redundant in pathways. The presence of specific genes in one isolate (or forma specialis) was resulted from the loss of the homologues in the other isolate (or forma specialis) by the replacements of transposable elements or losses of genomic fragments. In addition, different patterns and numbers of telomeric repeats were observed between the isolates.
Conclusions: Host adaptation of P. striiformis at the forma specialis level is a complex pathogenic trait, involving not only virulence-related genes but also other genes. Gene loss, which might be adaptive and driven by transposable element activities, provides genomic basis for host adaptation of different formae speciales of P. striiformis.
Keywords: Comparative genomics; Evolution; Formae speciales; Gene loss; Host adaptation; Puccinia striiformis; Stripe rust.