Comparative transcriptome profiling identifies maize line specificity of fungal effectors in the maize-Ustilago maydis interaction

Plant J. 2021 May;106(3):733-752. doi: 10.1111/tpj.15195. Epub 2021 Apr 3.


The biotrophic pathogen Ustilago maydis causes smut disease on maize (Zea mays) and induces the formation of tumours on all aerial parts of the plant. Unlike in other biotrophic interactions, no gene-for-gene interactions have been identified in the maize-U. maydis pathosystem. Thus, maize resistance to U. maydis is considered a polygenic, quantitative trait. Here, we study the molecular mechanisms of quantitative disease resistance (QDR) in maize, and how U. maydis interferes with its components. Based on quantitative scoring of disease symptoms in 26 maize lines, we performed an RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) analysis of six U. maydis-infected maize lines of highly distinct resistance levels. The different maize lines showed specific responses of diverse cellular processes to U. maydis infection. For U. maydis, our analysis identified 406 genes being differentially expressed between maize lines, of which 102 encode predicted effector proteins. Based on this analysis, we generated U. maydis CRISPR/Cas9 knock-out mutants for selected candidate effector sets. After infections of different maize lines with the fungal mutants, RNA-Seq analysis identified effectors with quantitative, maize line-specific virulence functions, and revealed auxin-related processes as a possible target for one of them. Thus, we show that both transcriptional activity and virulence function of fungal effector genes are modified according to the infected maize line, providing insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying QDR in the maize-U. maydis interaction.

Keywords: Ustilago maydis; Zea mays; CRISPR-Cas9; effectors; quantitative disease resistance; transcriptome analysis.

MeSH terms

  • Basidiomycota / genetics
  • Basidiomycota / metabolism*
  • CRISPR-Associated Protein 9
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems
  • Disease Resistance
  • Gene Editing
  • Gene Expression Profiling* / methods
  • Genes, Plant / genetics
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions*
  • Plant Diseases / microbiology*
  • Transcriptome / genetics
  • Zea mays / genetics
  • Zea mays / microbiology*


  • CRISPR-Associated Protein 9

Supplementary concepts

  • Ustilago maydis