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Dating Wood Rot
Specific lineages within the basidiomycete fungi, white rot species, have evolved the ability to break up a major structural component of woody plants, lignin, relative to their non–lignin-decaying brown rot relatives. Through the deep phylogenetic sampling of fungal genomes, Floudas et al. (p. 1715; see the Perspective by Hittinger) mapped the detailed evolution of wood-degrading enzymes. A key peroxidase and other enzymes involved in lignin decay were present in the common ancestor of the Agaricomycetes. These genes then expanded through gene duplications in parallel, giving rise to white rot lineages.
Wood is a major pool of organic carbon that is highly resistant to decay, owing largely to the presence of lignin. The only organisms capable of substantial lignin decay are white rot fungi in the Agaricomycetes, which also contains non–lignin-degrading brown rot and ectomycorrhizal species. Comparative analyses of 31 fungal genomes (12 generated for this study) suggest that lignin-degrading peroxidases expanded in the lineage leading to the ancestor of the Agaricomycetes, which is reconstructed as a white rot species, and then contracted in parallel lineages leading to brown rot and mycorrhizal species. Molecular clock analyses suggest that the origin of lignin degradation might have coincided with the sharp decrease in the rate of organic carbon burial around the end of the Carboniferous period.