Variations in sexual fitness among natural strains of the opportunistic human fungal pathogen Aspergillus fumigatus
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Aspergillus fumigatus is a ubiquitous ascomycete fungus, naturally inhabiting the soil and compost piles. Its conidia readily disperse into the atmosphere and cause opportunistic infections known as aspergillosis. With the emerging resistance to many antifungal drugs, our understanding of A. fumigatus epidemiology has become increasingly important for developing effective control and treatment strategies. As a pathogen capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, mutations causing drug resistance and increased virulence could be spread rapidly in A. fumigatus populations. However, relatively little is known about the distributions of sexual reproductive fitness among natural strains of A. fumigatus. Here we investigated the formation of sexual reproductive structure (i.e. cleistothecia) and sexual spore viability among 60 natural strains of A. fumigatus. These strains were from six geographically distant countries (India, China, Canada, Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand), with 10 strains (including five MAT1-1 strains and five MAT1-2 strains) from each country. These strains were crossed in all combinations with strains of the opposite mating type. In addition, all 60 strains were crossed with either AFB62-1 (MAT1-1) or AFIR928 (MAT1-2), two reference supermater strains. Of the 900 crosses among the 60 natural strains, 136 crosses (15.1%) produced cleistothecia. Our analyses revealed that strains from China had the highest average ability to form cleistothecia, followed by those from New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, India, Canada, and Cameroon. Among the crosses that produced cleistothecia, about 40% produced viable ascospores, with the rate of ascospore germination varied significantly among crosses. Interestingly, neither the ability to form cleistothecia nor ascospore germination rate showed any distinct relationships with either geographic or genetic distance between parental strains. Our results suggest that genetic exchange among geographically and genetically divergent strains of A. fumigatus are possible. However, the rates of genetic exchange likely vary among strains and populations in nature.
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