While host immune receptors detect pathogen-associated molecular patterns to activate immunity, pathogens attempt to deregulate host immunity through secreted effectors. Fungi employ LysM effectors to prevent recognition of cell wall-derived chitin by host immune receptors, although the mechanism to compete for chitin binding remained unclear. Structural analysis of the LysM effector Ecp6 of the fungal tomato pathogen Cladosporium fulvum reveals a novel mechanism for chitin binding, mediated by intrachain LysM dimerization, leading to a chitin-binding groove that is deeply buried in the effector protein. This composite binding site involves two of the three LysMs of Ecp6 and mediates chitin binding with ultra-high (pM) affinity. Intriguingly, the remaining singular LysM domain of Ecp6 binds chitin with low micromolar affinity but can nevertheless still perturb chitin-triggered immunity. Conceivably, the perturbation by this LysM domain is not established through chitin sequestration but possibly through interference with the host immune receptor complex.
The ability to launch an immune response is not unique to animals. Plants have also evolved the ability to detect molecules present on the surface of pathogens such as fungi. These molecular signatures are known as pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs), and they are detected by specialized receptors on the surface of plant cells.
Chitin, the main structural component of the cell wall in fungi, is one example of a PAMP. Many species of plants are able to detect chitin using receptors that contain sequences of amino acids called lysin motifs. Previous work in the model plant Arabidopsis has shown that chitin binds to a single lysin motif within each plant receptor.
However, just as plants have evolved the ability to recognize PAMPs, so fungi have evolved ways to outwit plants. They have developed small molecules called effector proteins that bind to PAMPs, in effect hiding them from the plant receptors. The tomato fungus Cladosporium fulvum, for example, secretes an effector protein called Ecp6, which contains lysin motifs just like those in the plant receptors. By binding chitin fragments, Ecp6 helps the fungus to avoid detection by its host plant.
Now, Sánchez-Vallet et al. present the high resolution crystal structure of Ecp6 and reveal the mechanism by which it outcompetes the plant’s own chitin receptors. In the presence of chitin, two lysin binding motifs within the Ecp6 protein combine to produce a binding site with ultrahigh affinity for chitin. This can outcompete the plant receptors, which use only a single lysin domain to bind the fungal protein.
As well as providing a molecular explanation for how certain fungi manage to evade the immune response in plants, the work of Sánchez-Vallet et al. offers an unusual example of convergent evolution, in which two evolutionarily distant organisms have evolved the ability to recognize the same molecule through structurally diverse proteins.