Smut fungi are a large group of biotrophic plant pathogens that infect mostly monocot species, including economically relevant cereal crops. For years, Ustilago maydis has stood out as the model system to study the genetics and cell biology of smut fungi as well as the pathogenic development of biotrophic plant pathogens. The identification and functional characterization of secreted effectors and their role in virulence have particularly been driven forward using the U. maydis-maize pathosystem. Today, advancing tools for additional smut fungi such as Ustilago hordei and Sporisorium reilianum, as well as an increasing number of available genome sequences, provide excellent opportunities to investigate in parallel the effector function and evolution associated with different lifestyles and host specificities. In addition, genome analyses revealed similarities in the genomic signature between pathogenic smuts and epiphytic Pseudozyma species. This review elaborates on how knowledge about fungal lifestyles, genome biology, and functional effector biology has helped in understanding the biology of this important group of fungal pathogens. We highlight the contribution of the U. maydis model system but also discuss the differences from other smut fungi, which raises the importance of comparative genomic and genetic analyses in future research.
Keywords: effectors; fungal life cycle; genome evolution; plant resistance; smut fungi.