An enduring theme in pathogenic microbiology is poor understanding of the mechanisms of host specificity. Metarhizium is a cosmopolitan genus of invertebrate pathogens that contains generalist species with broad host ranges such as M. robertsii (formerly known as M. anisopliae var. anisopliae) as well as specialists such as the acridid-specific grasshopper pathogen M. acridum. During growth on caterpillar (Manduca sexta) cuticle, M. robertsii up-regulates a gene (Mest1) that is absent in M. acridum and most other fungi. Disrupting M. robertsii Mest1 reduced virulence and overexpression increased virulence to caterpillars (Galleria mellonella and M. sexta), while virulence to grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) was unaffected. When Mest1 was transferred to M. acridum under control of its native M. robertsii promoter, the transformants killed and colonized caterpillars in a similar fashion to M. robertsii. MEST1 localized exclusively to lipid droplets in M. robertsii conidia and infection structures was up-regulated during nutrient deprivation and had esterase activity against lipids with short chain fatty acids. The mobilization of stored lipids was delayed in the Mest1 disruptant mutant. Overall, our results suggest that expression of Mest1 allows rapid hydrolysis of stored lipids, and promotes germination and infection structure formation by M. robertsii during nutrient deprivation and invasion, while Mest1 expression in M. acridum broadens its host range by bypassing the regulatory signals found on natural hosts that trigger the mobilization of endogenous nutrient reserves. This study suggests that speciation in an insect pathogen could potentially be driven by host shifts resulting from changes in a single gene.
Wang, S., Fang, W., Wang, C., & St. Leger, R. J. (2011). Insertion of an esterase gene into a specific locust pathogen (Metarhizium acridum) enables it to infect caterpillars. PLoS Pathogens, 7(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1002097