High Levels of Genetic Variation Exist in Aspergillus niger Populations Infecting Welwitschia mirabilis Hook

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Aspergillus niger is an asexual, haploid fungus which infects the seeds of Namibia's national plant, Welwitschia mirabilis, severely affecting plant viability. We used 31 randomly amplified polymorphic DNA markers to assess genetic variation among 89 A. niger isolates collected from three W. mirabilis populations in the Namib Desert. While all isolates belonged to the same vegetative compatibility group, 84% were unique genotypes, and estimates of genotypic evenness and Simpson's index of diversity approached 1.0 in the three populations. Analysis of molecular variance revealed that 78% of the total variation sampled was among isolates from individual W. mirabilis plants. Lower, but significant, amounts of variation detected among isolates from different plants (12%) and different sites (10%) also indicated some site- and plant-level genetic differentiation. Total gene diversity (HT=0.264) was mostly attributable to diversity within populations (HS=0.217); the relatively low level of genetic differentiation among the sites (GST=0.141) suggests that gene flow is occurring among the three distant sites. Although sexual reproduction has never been observed in this fungus, parasexuality is a well-known phenomenon in laboratory strains. We thus attribute the high levels of genetic variation to parasexuality and/or wind-facilitated gene flow from an as of yet undocumented broader host range of the fungus on other desert vegetation. Given the apparent ease of transmission, high levels of genetic diversity, and potentially broad host range, A. niger infections of W. mirabilis may be extremely difficult to control or prevent.

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