Basic leucine zipper (bZIP) transcription factors are present exclusively in eukaryotes and constitute one of the largest and most diverse transcription factor families. The proteins are responsible for central developmental and physiological processes in plants, animals, and fungi, including the pathogenicity of fungal plant pathogens. However, there is limited understanding of bZIPs in oomycetes, which are fungus-like organisms in the kingdom Stramenopila. Oomycetes include many destructive plant pathogens, including the well-studied species Phytophthora sojae, which causes soybean stem and root rot.
Candidate bZIPs encoded in the genomes of P. sojae and four other oomycetes, two diatoms, and two fungal species were predicted using bioinformatic methods. Comparative analysis revealed expanded numbers of bZIP candidates in oomycetes, especially the Phytophthora species, due to the expansion of several novel bZIP classes whose highly conserved asparagines in basic DNA-binding regions were substituted by other residues such as cysteine. The majority of these novel bZIP classes were mostly restricted to oomycetes. The large number of novel bZIPs appears to be the result of widespread gene duplications during oomycete evolution. The majority of P. sojae bZIP candidates, including both conventional and novel bZIP classes, were predicted to contain canonical protein secondary structures. Detection of gene transcripts using digital gene expression profiling and qRT-PCR suggested that most of the candidates were not pseudogenes. The major transcriptional shifts of bZIPs occurred during the zoosporangia/zoospore/cyst and host infection stages. Several infection-associated bZIP genes were identified that were positively regulated by H2O2 exposure.
The identification of large classes of bZIP proteins in oomycetes with novel bZIP motif variants, that are conserved and developmentally regulated and thus presumably functional, extends our knowledge of this important family of eukaryotic transcription factors. It also lays the foundation for detailed studies of the roles of these proteins in development and infection in P. sojae and other oomycetes.