LaeA and VeA coordinate secondary metabolism and differentiation in response to light signals in Aspergillus spp. Their orthologs, ChLae1 and ChVel1, were identified in the maize pathogen Cochliobolus heterostrophus, known to produce a wealth of secondary metabolites, including the host selective toxin, T-toxin. Produced by race T, T-toxin promotes high virulence to maize carrying Texas male sterile cytoplasm (T-cms). T-toxin production is significantly increased in the dark in wild type (WT), whereas Chvel1 and Chlae1 mutant toxin levels are much reduced in the dark compared to WT. Correspondingly, expression of T-toxin biosynthetic genes (Tox1) is up-regulated in the dark in WT, while dark-induced expression is much reduced/minimal in Chvel1 and Chlae1 mutants. Toxin production and Tox1 gene expression are increased in ChVEL1 overexpression (OE) strains grown in the dark and in ChLAE1 strains grown in either light or dark, compared to WT. These observations establish ChLae1 and ChVel1 as the first factors known to regulate host selective toxin production. Virulence of Chlae1 and Chvel1 mutants and OE strains is altered on both T-cms and normal cytoplasm maize, indicating that both T-toxin mediated super virulence and basic pathogenic ability are affected. Deletion of ChLAE1 or ChVEL1 reduces tolerance to H2O2. Expression of CAT3, one of the three catalase genes, is reduced in the Chvel1 mutant. Chlae1 and Chvel1 mutants also show decreased aerial hyphal growth, increased asexual sporulation and female sterility. ChLAE1 OE strains are female sterile, while ChVEL1 OE strains are more fertile than WT. ChLae1 and ChVel1 repress expression of 1,8-dihydroxynaphthalene (DHN) melanin biosynthesis genes, and, accordingly, melanization is enhanced in Chlae1 and Chvel1 mutants, and reduced in OE strains. Thus, ChLae1 and ChVel1 positively regulate T-toxin biosynthesis, pathogenicity and super virulence, oxidative stress responses, sexual development, and aerial hyphal growth, and negatively control melanin biosynthesis and asexual differentiation.
Filamentous fungi produce chemically diverse metabolites that broker positive and negative interactions with other organisms, manage host pathogenicity/virulence, nutritional and environmental stresses, and differentiation of the fungus. The maize pathogen Cochliobolus heterostrophus is notorious as the causal agent of the most economically devastating epidemic to date, in 1970. Disease severity was associated with appearance of a new race, producing T-toxin, a host selective toxin promoting high virulence to Texas male sterile cytoplasm maize, widely planted at the time. LaeA and VeA are central regulators of secondary metabolism in Aspergillus, coordinating metabolite production and differentiation in response to light. Given the significance of effector-type host selective toxins in pathogenic interactions, we characterized ChLae1 and ChVel1 and found that deletion and overexpression affect T-toxin production in planta and in vitro. Both chlorosis due to T-toxin and necrotic lesion formation are altered, establishing these as the first factors known to regulate both super virulence conferred by T-toxin, and basic pathogenicity, due to unknown factors. The mutants are also altered in oxidative stress responses, key to success in the infection court, asexual and sexual development, essential for fungal dissemination in the field, aerial hyphal growth, and pigment biosynthesis, essential for survival in the field.