Plants have complex and dynamic immune systems that have evolved to resist pathogens. Humans have worked to enhance these defenses in crops through breeding. However, many crops harbor only a fraction of the genetic diversity present in wild relatives. Increased utilization of diverse germplasm to search for desirable traits, such as disease resistance, is therefore a valuable step towards breeding crops that are adapted to both current and emerging threats. Here, we examine diversity of defense responses across four populations of the long-generation tree cropTheobroma cacaoL., as well as four non-cacaoTheobromaspecies, with the goal of identifying genetic elements essential for protection against the oomycete pathogenPhytophthora palmivora.
We began by creating a new, highly contiguous genome assembly for theP. palmivora-resistant genotype SCA 6 (Additional file 1: Tables S1-S5), deposited in GenBank under accessions CP139290-CP139299. We then used this high-quality assembly to combine RNA and whole-genome sequencing data to discover several genes and pathways associated with resistance. Many of these are unique, i.e., differentially regulated in only one of the four populations (diverged 40 k–900 k generations). Among the pathways shared across all populations is phenylpropanoid biosynthesis, a metabolic pathway with well-documented roles in plant defense. One gene in this pathway, caffeoyl shikimate esterase (CSE), was upregulated across all four populations following pathogen treatment, indicating its broad importance for cacao’s defense response. Further experimental evidence suggests this gene hydrolyzes caffeoyl shikimate to create caffeic acid, an antimicrobial compound and known inhibitor ofPhytophthora spp.
Our results indicate most expression variation associated with resistance is unique to populations. Moreover, our findings demonstrate the value of using a broad sample of evolutionarily diverged populations for revealing the genetic bases of cacao resistance toP. palmivora. This approach has promise for further revealing and harnessing valuable genetic resources in this and other long-generation plants.