What is Ustilago maydis?
Ustilago maydis is a basidiomycete fungal pathogen of maize and teosinte. The genome size is approximately 20 Mb. The fungus induces tumors on host plants and forms masses of diploid teliospores. These spores germinate and form haploid meiotic products that can be propagated in culture as yeast-like cells. Haploid strains of opposite mating type fuse and form a filamentous, dikaryotic cell type that invades plant tissue to reinitiate infection.
Ustilago maydis is an important model system for studying pathogen-host interactions and has been studied for more than 100 years by plant pathologists. Molecular genetic research with U. maydis focuses on recombination, the role of mating in pathogenesis, and signaling pathways that influence virulence. Recently, the fungus has emerged as an excellent experimental model for the molecular genetic analysis of phytopathogenesis, particularly in the characterization of infection-specific morphogenesis in response to signals from host plants. Ustilago maydis also serves as an important model for other basidiomycete plant pathogens that are more difficult to work with in the laboratory, such as the rust and bunt fungi.
Genomic sequence of U. maydis will also be valuable for comparative analysis of other fungal genomes, especially with respect to understanding the host range of fungal phytopathogens. The analysis of U. maydis would provide a framework for studying the hundreds of other Ustilago species that attack important crops, such as barley, wheat, sorghum, and sugarcane. Comparisons would also be possible with other basidiomycete fungi, such as the important human pathogen C. neoformans.
Commercially, U. maydis is an excellent model for the discovery of antifungal drugs. In addition, maize tumors caused by U. maydis are prized in Hispanic cuisine and there is interest in improving commercial production.