Transposable elements (TEs) are drivers of genome evolution and affect the expression landscape of the host genome. Stress is a major factor inducing TE activity, however the regulatory mechanisms underlying de-repression are poorly understood. Key unresolved questions are whether different types of stress differentially induce TE activity and whether different TEs respond differently to the same stress. Plant pathogens are excellent models to dissect the impact of stress on TEs, because lifestyle transitions on and off the host impose exposure to a variety of stress conditions. We analyzed the TE expression landscape of four well-characterized strains of the major wheat pathogen Zymoseptoria tritici. We experimentally exposed strains to nutrient starvation and host infection stress. Contrary to expectations, we show that the two distinct conditions induce the expression of different sets of TEs. In particular, the most highly expressed TEs, including MITE and LTR-Gypsy elements, show highly distinct de-repression across stress conditions. Both the genomic context of TEs and the genetic background stress (i.e. different strains harboring the same TEs) were major predictors of de-repression dynamics under stress. Genomic defenses inducing point mutations in repetitive regions were largely ineffective to prevent TE de-repression. Consistent with TE de-repression being governed by epigenetic effects, we found that gene expression profiles under stress varied significantly depending on the proximity to the closest TEs. The unexpected complexity in TE responsiveness to stress across genetic backgrounds and genomic locations shows that species harbor substantial genetic variation to control TEs.
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