A salient feature of genomes of higher organisms is the birth and death of gene copies. An example is the alpha prolamin genes, which encode seed storage proteins in grasses (Poaceae) and represent a medium-size gene family. To better understand the mechanism, extent, and pace of gene amplification, we compared prolamin gene copies in the genomes of two different tribes in the Panicoideae, the Paniceae and the Andropogoneae. We identified alpha prolamin (setarin) gene copies in the diploid foxtail millet (Paniceae) genome (490 Mb) and compared them with orthologous regions in diploid sorghum (730 Mb) and ancient allotetraploid maize (2,300 Mb) (Andropogoneae). Because sequenced genomes of other subfamilies of Poaceae like rice (389 Mb) (Ehrhartoideae) and Brachypodium (272 Mb) (Pooideae) do not have alpha prolamin genes, their collinear regions can serve as "empty" reference sites. A pattern emerged, where genes were copied and inserted into other chromosomal locations followed by additional tandem duplications (clusters). We observed both recent (species-specific) insertion events and older ones that are shared by these tribes. Many older copies were deleted by unequal crossing over of flanking sequences or damaged by truncations. However, some remain intact with active and inactive alleles. These results indicate that genomes reflect only a snapshot of the gene content of a species and are far less static than conventional genetics has suggested. Nucleotide substitution rates for active alpha prolamins genes were twice as high as for low copy number beta, gamma, and delta prolamin genes, suggesting that gene amplification accelerates the pace of divergence.
Complex silencing mechanisms in plants and other kingdoms target transposons, repeat sequences, invasive viral nucleic acids and transgenes, but also endogenous genes and genes involved in paramutation. Paramutation occurs in a heterozygote when a transcriptionally active allele heritably adopts the epigenetic state of a transcriptionally and/or post-transcriptionally repressed allele. P1-rr and its silenced epiallele P1-pr, which encode a Myb-like transcription factor mediating pigmentation in floral organs of Zea mays, differ in their cytosine methylation pattern and chromatin structure at a complex enhancer site. Here, we tested whether P1-pr is able to heritably silence its transcriptionally active P1-rr allele in a heterozygote and whether DNA methylation is associated with the establishment and maintenance of P1-rr silencing. We found that P1-pr participates in paramutation as the repressing allele and P1-rr as the sensitive allele. Silencing of P1-rr is highly variable compared to the inducing P1-pr resulting in a wide range of gene expression. Whereas cytosine methylation at P1-rr is negatively correlated with transcription and pigment levels after segregation of P1-pr, methylation lags behind the establishment of the repressed p1 gene expression. We propose a model in which P1-pr paramutation is triggered by changing epigenetic states of transposons immediately adjacent to a P1-rr enhancer sequence. Considering the vast amount of transposable elements in the maize genome close to regulatory elements of genes, numerous loci could undergo paramutation-induced allele silencing, which could also have a significant impact on breeding agronomically important traits.
Seeds have evolved to accommodate complicated processes like senescence, dormancy, and germination. Central to these is the storage of carbohydrates and proteins derived from sugars and amino acids synthesized during photosynthesis. In the grasses, the bulk of amino acids is stored in the prolamin superfamily that specifically accumulates in seed endosperm during senescence. Their promoters contain a conserved cis-element, called prolamin-box (P-box), recognized by the trans-activator P-box binding factor (PBF). Because of the lack of null mutants in all grass species, its physiological role in storage-protein gene expression has been elusive. In contrast, a null mutant of another endosperm-specific trans-activator Opaque2 (O2) has been shown to be required for the transcriptional activation of subsets of this superfamily by binding to the O2 box. Here, we used RNAi to knockdown Pbf expression and found that only 27-kDa γ- and 22-kDa α-zein gene expression were affected, whereas the level of other zeins remained unchanged. Still, transgenic seeds had an opaque seed phenotype. Combination of PbfRNAi and o2 resulted in further reduction of α-zein expression. We also tested the interaction of promoters and constitutively expressed PBF and O2. Whereas transgenic promoters could be activated, endogenous promoters appeared to be not accessible to transcriptional activation, presumably due to differential chromatin states. Although analysis of the methylation of binding sites of PBF and O2 correlated with the expression of endogenous 22-kDa α-zein promoters, a different mechanism seems to apply to the 27-kDa γ-zein promoter, which does not undergo methylation changes.