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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Mar 13;109(11):4215-20. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113893109. Epub 2012 Feb 9.

Identification of innate immunity elicitors using molecular signatures of natural selection.

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Department of Cell and Systems Biology and Centre for the Analysis of Genome Evolution and Function, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3B2.


The innate immune system is an ancient and broad-spectrum defense system found in all eukaryotes. The detection of microbial elicitors results in the up-regulation of defense-related genes and the elicitation of inflammatory and apoptotic responses. These innate immune responses are the front-line barrier against disease because they collectively suppress the growth of the vast majority of invading microbes. Despite their critical role, we know remarkably little about the diversity of immune elicitors. To address this paucity, we reasoned that hosts are more likely to evolve recognition to "core" pathogen proteins under strong negative selection for the maintenance of essential cellular functions, whereas repeated exposure to host-defense responses will impose strong positive selective pressure for elicitor diversification to avoid host recognition. Therefore, we hypothesized that novel bacterial elicitors can be identified through these opposing forces of natural selection. We tested this hypothesis by examining the genomes of six bacterial phytopathogens and identifying 56 candidate elicitors that have an excess of positively selected residues in a background of strong negative selection. We show that these positively selected residues are atypically clustered, similar to patterns seen in the few well-characterized elicitors. We then validated selected candidate elicitors by showing that they induce Arabidopsis thaliana innate immunity in functional (virulence suppression) and cellular (callose deposition) assays. These finding provide targets for the study of host-pathogen interactions and applied research into alternative antimicrobial treatments.

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