Graduate Theses & Dissertations

Genome annotation, gene characterization, and the functional analysis of natural antisense transcripts in the fungal plant pathogen Ustilago maydis
Ustilago maydis (DC) Corda is the causal agent of 'common smut of corn'. Completion of the U. maydis lifecycle is dependent on development inside its host, Zea mays. Symptoms of U. maydis infection include chlorosis and the formation of tumours on all aerial corn tissues. Within the tumours, thick-walled diploid teliospores form; these are the reproductive and dispersal agent for the fungus. U. maydis is the model to study basidiomycete biotrophic plant-pathogen interactions. It holds this status in part because of the completely sequenced 20.5 Mb genome; however, thorough genome annotation is required to fully realize the value of this resource. The research presented here improved U. maydis genome annotation through the analysis of cDNA library sequences and comparative genomics. These analyses identified and characterized pathogenesis-related genes, and identified putative meiosis genes. This enabled the use of U. maydis as a model for investigating 'host-induced' meiosis. Further, the cDNA library analyses identified non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) and natural antisense transcripts (NATs). NATs are endogenous RNA molecules with regions complementary to a protein-coding transcript. Although NATs have been identified in a wide variety of mammals, plants, and fungi, very few have been functionally characterized. Over 200 U. maydis NATs were annotated by analyzing full-length cDNA sequences. NAT structural features were characterized. Strand-specific RT-PCR was used to detect NATs in U. maydis and in a related smut fungus, U. hordei. The data supported a common role for NATs in smut teliospore development, independent of the RNA interference pathway. Analysis of the expression of one U. maydis NAT, as-um02151, in haploid cells, led to a model for NAT function in U. maydis during teliospore dormancy. This model proposed NATs facilitate the maintenance of stored mRNAs through the formation of double-stranded RNA. In testing this model, it was determined that the deletion of two separate upstream regulatory regions, one of which contained a ncRNA (ncRNA1), altered NAT levels and decreased pathogenesis. These studies strengthened U. maydis as a model organism, and began the functional investigation of NATs in U. maydis, which identified a new class of fungal pathogenesis genes. Author Keywords: cDNA library analysis, genome annotation, mRNA stability, natural antisense transcripts, pathogenesis, Ustilago maydis

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