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BMC Biol. 2018 Jul 16;16(1):78. doi: 10.1186/s12915-018-0543-2.

Transposable element insertions shape gene regulation and melanin production in a fungal pathogen of wheat.

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Plant Pathology, Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
UMR BIOGER, INRA, AgroParisTech, Université Paris-Saclay, Thiverval-Grignon, France.
Ecologie Systématique Evolution, Univ. Paris-Sud, AgroParisTech, CNRS, Université Paris Saclay, Orsay, France.
Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics, Institute of Biology, University of Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
Plant Pathology, Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.



Fungal plant pathogens pose major threats to crop yield and sustainable food production if they are highly adapted to their host and the local environment. Variation in gene expression contributes to phenotypic diversity within fungal species and affects adaptation. However, very few cases of adaptive regulatory changes have been reported in fungi and the underlying mechanisms remain largely unexplored. Fungal pathogen genomes are highly plastic and harbor numerous insertions of transposable elements, which can potentially contribute to gene expression regulation. In this work, we elucidated how transposable elements contribute to variation in melanin accumulation, a quantitative trait in fungi that affects survival under stressful conditions.


We demonstrated that differential transcriptional regulation of the gene encoding the transcription factor Zmr1, which controls expression of the genes in the melanin biosynthetic gene cluster, is responsible for variation in melanin accumulation in the fungal plant pathogen Zymoseptoria tritici. We show that differences in melanin levels between two strains of Z. tritici are due to two levels of transcriptional regulation: (1) variation in the promoter sequence of Zmr1 and (2) an insertion of transposable elements upstream of the Zmr1 promoter. Remarkably, independent insertions of transposable elements upstream of Zmr1 occurred in 9% of Z. tritici strains from around the world and negatively regulated Zmr1 expression, contributing to variation in melanin accumulation.


Our studies identified two levels of transcriptional control that regulate the synthesis of melanin. We propose that these regulatory mechanisms evolved to balance the fitness costs associated with melanin production against its positive contribution to survival in stressful environments.


Epiallele; Fungal plant pathogen; Gene expression variation; Melanization; Quantitative trait; Transposable element; Wheat

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