Keeping Up With The Plant Destroyers

A guest post by Sophien Kamoun, The Sainsbury Laboratory 

(This is guest post by Sophien Kamoun, The Sainsbury Laboratory. You can follow him on Twitter @KamounLab)

Readers of PlantVillage who visited popular pages like the one on tomato late blight would have come across the term “oomycetes” and probably wondered what in the world is an oomycete? It’s the taxon of microbes that groups many plant pathogens such as Phytophthora, Pythium, and the downy mildews. These are destructive pathogens of plants. Phytophthora, which stems from Greek words meaning plant-destroyer, is a diverse group of plant pathogens with over 100 species known to science . It includes the infamous Irish potato famine pathogen Phytophthora infestans. When this pathogen reached Ireland in the 1840s, it triggered famine and mayhem with one million people dead and another million forced to leave the island. Today, the late blight disease caused by P. infestans threatens not only tomatoes and potatoes in your gardens but also commercial and subsistence farming worldwide. Matt Fisher, Sarah Gurr and their colleagues recently estimated that losses due to late blight add up to enough calories to feed hundreds of millions of people.

So what are these oomycetes that are so feared by gardeners and farmers alike? Traditionally oomycetes were thought to be fungi (yeasts, molds and mushrooms). They are not. Modern methods of evolutionary analyses, known as phylogenetics, have cemented the view that oomycetes are only distant relatives of the fungi. In fact, fungi are more closely related to you and I than they are the oomycetes. Oomycete biologists like to quip “bats are not birds, dolphins are not fish, and oomycetes are not fungi.” In fact, oomycetes turned out to have unexpected marine cousins in brown algae (kelp) and diatoms in a grouping known as the heterokonts. Oomycetes form a very deep branch in the tree of life and may have evolved from marine parasitic microorganisms. Just a few months ago, while I was visiting Christine Strullu-Derrien and Paul Kenrick at the Natural History Museum in London, I had the amazing opportunity to hold a fossil oomycete that is 300 million year old. Already in those ancient times, oomycetes were successful colonizers of plants and may even have been parasitic.

Image by Sophien Kamoun showing fetching attire of Oomycete researchers

But evolution is a complicated process. More often than widely assumed, it proceeded as a reticulate network rather than a straight line. One example is the transfer of genes from one organism to another. This process, known as horizontal or lateral gene transfer, has occurred frequently in bacteria but is not as well documented in more complex organisms like oomycetes and fungi. Nonetheless, Tom Richard and colleagues at Exeter University reported that oomycetes have at some point in their evolution acquired genes from fungi. Whether this took place hundreds million years ago or more recently is not yet resolved. But as Tom likes to say “oomycetes are 99% not fungi”. How this phenomenon has contributed to the evolution of oomycetes into destructive plant pathogens is an interesting research topic.

But why all the misery? Why are oomycetes the scourge of farmers worldwide? The truth is, although Phytophthora are astonishing plant killers that can wipe out crops in days, the secret of their success is their ability to rapidly adapt to resistant plant varieties. Just like the constantly morphing flu virus, the potato blight pathogen and its relatives continuously spawn new races adapted to the resistant varieties released by plant breeders and even occasionally to new host plants. Like Lewis Carroll’s fictional Red Queen, plant breeders and biotechnologists only hope is to strenuously run to keep in the same place. If we could only produce resistant varieties more often then perhaps we’ll have a chance to outrace the ever-evolving blight pathogen.

A gloomy patch of potatoes struck down by Phytophthora infestans

So while you lament your blighted potatoes and your dying tomatoes, take a moment to ponder over the awesome parasite that’s making your vegetable garden look so gloomy. That microbe has already colonized plants way before humans emerged on earth. And for hundreds of millions of years it has kept on changing, evolving, and adapting ensuring its uninterrupted survival on an astonishing array of plant species and varieties. When humans domesticated plants, it could not resist the offering and adopted the crops as its new hosts. Ultimately, it moved to new continents and farmlands causing misery and despair. But we haven’t given up. Plant pathologists are hard at work learning more about these parasites and applying new knowledge and technologies to build disease-resistant crops.