Ears are the seed-bearing inflorescences of maize (Zea mays) plants and represent a crucial component of maize yield. The first step in the formation of ears is the initiation of axillary meristems in the axils of developing leaves. In the classic maize mutant barren stalk fastigiate1 (baf1), first discovered in the 1950s, ears either do not form or, if they do, are partially fused to the main stalk. We positionally cloned Baf1 and found that it encodes a transcriptional regulator containing an AT-hook DNA binding motif. Single coorthologs of Baf1 are found in syntenic regions of brachypodium (Brachypodium distachyon), rice (Oryza sativa), and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), suggesting that the gene is likely present in all cereal species. Protein-protein interaction assays suggest that BAF1 is capable of forming homodimers and heterodimers with other members of the AT-hook family. Another transcriptional regulator required for ear initiation is the basic helix-loop-helix protein BARREN STALK1 (BA1). Genetic and expression analyses suggest that Baf1 is required to reach a threshold level of Ba1 expression for the initiation of maize ears. We propose that Baf1 functions in the demarcation of a boundary region essential for the specification of a stem cell niche.
Plant axillary meristems are composed of highly organized, self-renewing stem cells that produce indeterminate branches or terminate in differentiated structures, such as the flowers. These opposite fates, dictated by both genetic and environmental factors, determine interspecific differences in the architecture of plants. The Cys(2)-His(2) zinc-finger transcription factor RAMOSA1 (RA1) regulates the fate of most axillary meristems during the early development of maize inflorescences, the tassel and the ear, and has been implicated in the evolution of grass architecture. Mutations in RA1 or any other known members of the ramosa pathway, RAMOSA2 and RAMOSA3, generate highly branched inflorescences. Here, we report a genetic screen for the enhancement of maize inflorescence branching and the discovery of a new regulator of meristem fate: the RAMOSA1 ENHANCER LOCUS2 (REL2) gene. rel2 mutants dramatically increase the formation of long branches in ears of both ra1 and ra2 mutants. REL2 encodes a transcriptional co-repressor similar to the TOPLESS protein of Arabidopsis, which is known to maintain apical-basal polarity during embryogenesis. REL2 is capable of rescuing the embryonic defects of the Arabidopsis topless-1 mutant, suggesting that REL2 also functions as a transcriptional co-repressor throughout development. We show by genetic and molecular analyses that REL2 physically interacts with RA1, indicating that the REL2/RA1 transcriptional repressor complex antagonizes the formation of indeterminate branches during maize inflorescence development. Our results reveal a novel mechanism for the control of meristem fate and the architecture of plants.
One of the most fascinating aspects of plant morphology is the regular geometric arrangement of leaves and flowers, called phyllotaxy. The shoot apical meristem (SAM) determines these patterns, which vary depending on species and developmental stage. Auxin acts as an instructive signal in leaf initiation, and its transport has been implicated in phyllotaxy regulation in Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana). Altered phyllotactic patterns are observed in a maize (Zea mays) mutant, aberrant phyllotaxy1 (abph1, also known as abphyl1), and ABPH1 encodes a cytokinin-inducible type A response regulator, suggesting that cytokinin signals are also involved in the mechanism by which phyllotactic patterns are established. Therefore, we investigated the interaction between auxin and cytokinin signaling in phyllotaxy. Treatment of maize shoots with a polar auxin transport inhibitor, 1-naphthylphthalamic acid, strongly reduced ABPH1 expression, suggesting that auxin or its polar transport is required for ABPH1 expression. Immunolocalization of the PINFORMED1 (PIN1) polar auxin transporter revealed that PIN1 expression marks leaf primordia in maize, similarly to Arabidopsis. Interestingly, maize PIN1 expression at the incipient leaf primordium was greatly reduced in abph1 mutants. Consistently, auxin levels were reduced in abph1, and the maize PIN1 homolog was induced not only by auxin but also by cytokinin treatments. Our results indicate distinct roles for ABPH1 as a negative regulator of SAM size and a positive regulator of PIN1 expression. These studies highlight a complex interaction between auxin and cytokinin signaling in the specification of phyllotactic patterns and suggest an alternative model for the generation of altered phyllotactic patterns in abph1 mutants. We propose that reduced auxin levels and PIN1 expression in abph1 mutant SAMs delay leaf initiation, contributing to the enlarged SAM and altered phyllotaxy of these mutants.