Anoop Sindhu and colleagues report on a gene that may have played a key role in the evolution of grasses. The gene, Hm1, provides resistance against Cochliobolus carbonum race 1 (CCR1), a fungus that is capable of attacking and killing corn at any stage of its development (images of CCR1 infection). While CCR1 is only known to affect corn, the gene Hm1 and its relatives are present throughout the grass family, but are absent from other lineages.

CCR1 is only known as a disease in Zea mays, but the Hm1 family of genes throughout the grass family. Sindhu and colleagues silenced the corresponding gene in barley. This resulted in barley that was susceptible to CCR1. The fungus is able to invade susceptible grasses through the production of Helminthosporium carbonum* (HC) toxin. The ability of Hm1 and related genes to resist CCR1 comes from an enzyme known as HC-toxin reductase (HCTR), which detoxifies HCTR.

A phylogenetic analysis of the Hm1-gene family showed that they were monophyletic - they all shared a common ancestor. Since it is present throughout the grass family, but is absent from all other groups of plants, it appears that the gene shares its origin with the grass family. This led the authors to conclude that:

The maintenance of HCTR gene function in maize and barley, coupled with the unique phylogenetic position of the Hm1 gene (with no closely related orthologs in eudicots), suggests that Hm1 may have played a critical role in the evolution of most of our cereal crops. Given the devastating potential of CCR1 to kill susceptible corn, it is likely that this fungus or its ancestral form would have threatened the existence of grasses, or at least severely constrained their geographical distribution, had Hm1 not evolved to detoxify HC toxin. Thus, it seems likely that Hm1 served as a guardian of the grass family, allowing it to survive, thrive, and evolve into crops that feed the world.
*Helminthosporium carbonum is the asexual form of Cochliobolus carbonum. Since fungi are classified on the basis of their sexual structure, fungi whose fruiting bodies are unknown often end up being described as distinct species.

Sindhu, A., Chintamanani, S., Brandt, A.S., Zanis, M., Scofield, S.R., Johal, G.S. (2008). A guardian of grasses: Specific origin and conservation of a unique disease-resistance gene in the grass lineage. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 105(5), 1762-1767. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0711406105 Open Access