Plant Biology Highlights: Science Articles 2019

As a continuation of plant biology CNS (Cell, Nature, Science) paper highlights, here are the articles published in Science in 2019. Plant biology stories appeared on three issues of Science cover (Feb 8 - Volume 363 - Issue 6427; Apr 5 - Volume 364 - Issue 6435; Aug 2 - Volume 365 - Issue 6452). At the end of the post, you will find the collection of Science articles published in 2018 as well. Enjoy!




Synthetic glycolate metabolism pathways stimulate crop growth and productivity in the field



Photorespiration is required in C3 plants to metabolize toxic glycolate formed when ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase oxygenates rather than carboxylates ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate. Depending on growing temperatures, photorespiration can reduce yields by 20 to 50% in C3 crops. Inspired by earlier work, they installed into tobacco chloroplasts synthetic glycolate metabolic pathways that are thought to be more efficient than the native pathway. Flux through the synthetic pathways was maximized by inhibiting glycolate export from the chloroplast. The synthetic pathways tested improved photosynthetic quantum yield by 20%. Numerous homozygous transgenic lines increased biomass productivity between 19 and 37% in replicated field trials. These results show that engineering alternative glycolate metabolic pathways into crop chloroplasts while inhibiting glycolate export into the native pathway can drive increases in C3 crop yield under agricultural field conditions.

A regulatory circuit conferring varied flowering response to cold in annual and perennial plants



The reproductive strategies of plants are highly variable. Short-lived annuals flower abundantly soon after germination, whereas longer-lived perennials postpone and spatially restrict flowering. They used CRISPR/Cas9 and interspecies gene transfer to understand divergence in reproductive patterns between annual and perennial crucifers. We show that in perennial Arabis alpina, flowering in response to winter cold depends on the floral integrator SQUAMOSA PROMOTER BINDING PROTEIN-LIKE 15 (SPL15), whose activity is limited to older shoots and branches during cold exposure. In annuals, this regulatory system is conserved, but cold-induced flowering occurs in young shoots, without requirement for SPL15, through the photoperiodic pathway when plants return to warm. By reconstructing the annual response in perennials, they conclude that characteristic patterns of reproduction in annuals and perennials are conferred through variation in dependency on distinct flowering pathways acting in parallel.

Ubiquitin-dependent chloroplast-associated protein degradation in plants



Chloroplasts contain thousands of nucleus-encoded proteins that are imported from the cytosol by translocases in the chloroplast envelope membranes. Proteolytic regulation of the translocases is critically important, but little is known about the underlying mechanisms. They applied forward genetics and proteomics in Arabidopsis to identify factors required for chloroplast outer envelope membrane (OEM) protein degradation. We identified SP2, an Omp85-type β-barrel channel of the OEM, and CDC48, a cytosolic AAA+ (ATPase associated with diverse cellular activities) chaperone. Both proteins acted in the same pathway as the ubiquitin E3 ligase SP1, which regulates OEM translocase components. SP2 and CDC48 cooperated to bring about retrotranslocation of ubiquitinated substrates from the OEM (fulfilling conductance and motor functions, respectively), enabling degradation of the substrates by the 26S proteasome in the cytosol. Such chloroplast-associated protein degradation (CHLORAD) is vital for organellar functions and plant development.

Optogenetic manipulation of stomatal kinetics improves carbon assimilation, water use, and growth



Stomata serve dual and often conflicting roles, facilitating carbon dioxide influx into the plant leaf for photosynthesis and restricting water efflux via transpiration. Strategies for reducing transpiration without incurring a cost for photosynthesis must circumvent this inherent coupling of carbon dioxide and water vapor diffusion. They expressed the synthetic, light-gated K+ channel BLINK1 in guard cells surrounding stomatal pores in Arabidopsis to enhance the solute fluxes that drive stomatal aperture. BLINK1 introduced a K+ conductance and accelerated both stomatal opening under light exposure and closing after irradiation. Integrated over the growth period, BLINK1 drove a 2.2-fold increase in biomass in fluctuating light without cost in water use by the plant. Thus, they demonstrate the potential of enhancing stomatal kinetics to improve water use efficiency without penalty in carbon fixation.

Reconstitution and structure of a plant NLR resistosome conferring immunity



Nucleotide-binding, leucine-rich repeat receptors (NLRs) perceive pathogen effectors to trigger plant immunity. Biochemical mechanisms underlying plant NLR activation have until now remained poorly understood. They reconstituted an active complex containing the Arabidopsis coiled-coil NLR ZAR1, the pseudokinase RKS1, uridylated protein kinase PBL2, and 2′-deoxyadenosine 5′-triphosphate (dATP), demonstrating the oligomerization of the complex during immune activation. The cryo–electron microscopy structure reveals a wheel-like pentameric ZAR1 resistosome. Besides the nucleotide-binding domain, the coiled-coil domain of ZAR1 also contributes to resistosome pentamerization by forming an α-helical barrel that interacts with the leucine-rich repeat and winged-helix domains. Structural remodeling and fold switching during activation release the very N-terminal amphipathic α helix of ZAR1 to form a funnel-shaped structure that is required for the plasma membrane association, cell death triggering, and disease resistance, offering clues to the biochemical function of a plant resistosome.

Defining the developmental program leading to meiosis in maize



In multicellular organisms, the entry into meiosis is a complex process characterized by increasing meiotic specialization. Using single-cell RNA sequencing, we reconstructed the developmental program into maize male meiosis. A smooth continuum of expression stages before meiosis was followed by a two-step transcriptome reorganization in leptotene, during which 26.7% of transcripts changed in abundance by twofold or more. Analysis of cell-cycle gene expression indicated that nearly all pregerminal cells proliferate, eliminating a stem-cell model to generate meiotic cells. Mutants defective in somatic differentiation or meiotic commitment expressed transcripts normally present in early meiosis after a delay; thus, the germinal transcriptional program is cell autonomous and can proceed despite meiotic failure.

Glycosidase and glycan polymorphism control hydrolytic release of immunogenic flagellin peptides



Plants and animals recognize conserved flagellin fragments as a signature of bacterial invasion. These immunogenic elicitor peptides are embedded in the flagellin polymer and require hydrolytic release before they can activate cell surface receptors. Although much of flagellin signaling is understood, little is known about the release of immunogenic fragments. We discovered that plant-secreted β-galactosidase 1 (BGAL1) of Nicotiana benthamiana promotes hydrolytic elicitor release and acts in immunity against pathogenic Pseudomonas syringae strains only when they carry a terminal modified viosamine (mVio) in the flagellin O-glycan. In counter defense, P. syringae pathovars evade host immunity by using BGAL1-resistant O-glycans or by producing a BGAL1 inhibitor. Polymorphic glycans on flagella are common to plant and animal pathogenic bacteria and represent an important determinant of host immunity to bacterial pathogens.

Rapid plant evolution driven by the interaction of pollination and herbivory



Pollination and herbivory are both key drivers of plant diversity but are traditionally studied in isolation from each other. They investigated real-time evolutionary changes in plant traits over six generations by using fast-cycling Brassica rapa plants and manipulating the presence and absence of bumble bee pollinators and leaf herbivores. They found that plants under selection by bee pollinators evolved increased floral attractiveness, but this process was compromised by the presence of herbivores. Plants under selection from both bee pollinators and herbivores evolved higher degrees of self-compatibility and autonomous selfing, as well as reduced spatial separation of sexual organs (herkogamy). Overall, the evolution of most traits was affected by the interaction of bee pollination and herbivory, emphasizing the importance of the cross-talk between both types of interactions for plant evolution.

Bacterial medium chain 3-hydroxy fatty acid metabolites trigger immunity in Arabidopsis plants



In plants, cell-surface immune receptors sense molecular non–self-signatures. Lipid A of Gram-negative bacterial lipopolysaccharide is considered such a non–self-signature. The receptor kinase LIPOOLIGOSACCHARIDE-SPECIFIC REDUCED ELICITATION (LORE) mediates plant immune responses to Pseudomonas and Xanthomonas but not enterobacterial lipid A or lipopolysaccharide preparations. Here, we demonstrate that synthetic and bacterial lipopolysaccharide-copurified medium-chain 3-hydroxy fatty acid (mc-3-OH-FA) metabolites elicit LORE-dependent immunity. The mc-3-OH-FAs are sensed in a chain length– and hydroxylation-specific manner, with free (R)-3-hydroxydecanoic acid [(R)-3-OH-C10:0] representing the strongest immune elicitor. By contrast, bacterial compounds comprising mc-3-OH-acyl building blocks but devoid of free mc-3-OH-FAs—including lipid A or lipopolysaccharide, rhamnolipids, lipopeptides, and acyl-homoserine-lactones—do not trigger LORE-dependent responses. Hence, plants sense low-complexity bacterial metabolites to trigger immune responses.

Damage on plants activates Ca2+-dependent metacaspases for release of immunomodulatory peptides



Physical damage to cells leads to the release of immunomodulatory peptides to elicit a wound defense response in the surrounding tissue. In Arabidopsis thaliana, the plant elicitor peptide 1 (Pep1) is processed from its protein precursor, PRECURSOR OF PEP1 (PROPEP1). They demonstrate that upon damage, both at the tissue and single-cell levels, the cysteine protease METACASPASE4 (MC4) is instantly and spatiotemporally activated by binding high levels of Ca2+ and is necessary and sufficient for Pep1 maturation. Cytosol-localized PROPEP1 and MC4 react only after loss of plasma membrane integrity and prolonged extracellular Ca2+ entry. Their results reveal that a robust mechanism consisting of conserved molecular components links the intracellular and Ca2+-dependent activation of a specific cysteine protease with the maturation of damage-induced wound defense signals.

A specialized metabolic network selectively modulates Arabidopsis root microbiota



Plant specialized metabolites have ecological functions, yet the presence of numerous uncharacterized biosynthetic genes in plant genomes suggests that many molecules remain unknown. They discovered a triterpene biosynthetic network in the roots of the small mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Collectively, they have elucidated and reconstituted three divergent pathways for the biosynthesis of root triterpenes, namely thalianin (seven steps), thalianyl medium-chain fatty acid esters (three steps), and arabidin (five steps). A. thaliana mutants disrupted in the biosynthesis of these compounds have altered root microbiota. In vitro bioassays with purified compounds reveal selective growth modulation activities of pathway metabolites toward root microbiota members and their biochemical transformation and utilization by bacteria, supporting a role for this biosynthetic network in shaping an Arabidopsis-specific root microbial community.

Rhizobial tRNA-derived small RNAs are signal molecules regulating plant nodulation



Rhizobial infection and root nodule formation in legumes require recognition of signal molecules produced by the bacteria and their hosts. Here, they show that rhizobial transfer RNA (tRNA)-derived small RNA fragments (tRFs) are signal molecules that modulate host nodulation. Three families of rhizobial tRFs were confirmed to regulate host genes associated with nodule initiation and development through hijacking the host RNA-interference machinery that involves ARGONAUTE 1. Silencing individual tRFs with the use of short tandem target mimics or by overexpressing their targets represses root hair curling and nodule formation, whereas repressing these targets with artificial microRNAs identical to the respective tRFs or mutating these targets with CRISPR-Cas9 promotes nodulation. Their findings thus uncover a bacterial small RNA–mediated mechanism for prokaryote-eukaryote interaction and may pave the way for enhancing nodulation efficiency in legumes.

Evolutionary flexibility in flooding response circuitry in angiosperms



Flooding due to extreme weather threatens crops and ecosystems. To understand variation in gene regulatory networks activated by submergence, they conducted a high-resolution analysis of chromatin accessibility and gene expression at three scales of transcript control in four angiosperms, ranging from a dryland-adapted wild species to a wetland crop. The data define a cohort of conserved submergence-activated genes with signatures of overlapping cis regulation by four transcription factor families. Syntenic genes are more highly expressed than nonsyntenic genes, yet both can have the cis motifs and chromatin accessibility associated with submergence up-regulation. Whereas the flexible circuitry spans the eudicot-monocot divide, the frequency of specific cis motifs, extent of chromatin accessibility, and degree of submergence activation are more prevalent in the wetland crop and may have adaptive importance.

Ongoing accumulation of plant diversity through habitat connectivity in an 18-year experiment



Deleterious effects of habitat fragmentation and benefits of connecting fragments could be significantly underestimated because changes in colonization and extinction rates that drive changes in biodiversity can take decades to accrue. In a large and well-replicated habitat fragmentation experiment, they find that annual colonization rates for 239 plant species in connected fragments are 5% higher and annual extinction rates 2% lower than in unconnected fragments. This has resulted in a steady, nonasymptotic increase in diversity, with nearly 14% more species in connected fragments after almost two decades. Their results show that the full biodiversity value of connectivity is much greater than previously estimated, cannot be effectively evaluated at short time scales, and can be maximized by connecting habitat sooner rather than later.

Dynamic control of plant water use using designed ABA receptor agonists



Drought causes crop losses worldwide, and its impact is expected to increase as the world warms. This has motivated the development of small-molecule tools for mitigating the effects of drought on agriculture. They show here that current leads are limited by poor bioactivity in wheat, a widely grown staple crop, and in tomato. To address this limitation, they combined virtual screening, x-ray crystallography, and structure-guided design to develop opabactin (OP), an abscisic acid (ABA) mimic with up to an approximately sevenfold increase in receptor affinity relative to ABA and up to 10-fold greater activity in vivo. Studies in Arabidopsis thaliana reveal a role of the type III receptor PYRABACTIN RESISTANCE-LIKE 2 for the antitranspirant efficacy of OP. Thus, virtual screening and structure-guided optimization yielded newly discovered agonists for manipulating crop abiotic stress tolerance and water use.

Pathogen-induced activation of disease-suppressive functions in the endophytic root microbiome



Microorganisms living inside plants can promote plant growth and health, but their genomic and functional diversity remain largely elusive. Here, metagenomics and network inference show that fungal infection of plant roots enriched for Chitinophagaceae and Flavobacteriaceae in the root endosphere and for chitinase genes and various unknown biosynthetic gene clusters encoding the production of nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPSs) and polyketide synthases (PKSs). After strain-level genome reconstruction, a consortium of Chitinophaga and Flavobacterium was designed that consistently suppressed fungal root disease. Site-directed mutagenesis then revealed that a previously unidentified NRPS-PKS gene cluster from Flavobacterium was essential for disease suppression by the endophytic consortium. Their results highlight that endophytic root microbiomes harbor a wealth of as yet unknown functional traits that, in concert, can protect the plant inside out.

Evolution of carnivorous traps from planar leaves through simple shifts in gene expression



Leaves vary from planar sheets and needle-like structures, to elaborate cup-shaped traps. Here, they show that in the carnivorous plant Utricularia gibba, the upper leaf (adaxial) domain is restricted to a small region of the primordium which gives rise to the trap’s inner layer. This restriction is necessary for trap formation, as ectopic adaxial activity at early stages gives radialized leaves and no traps. We present a model that accounts for the formation of both planar and non-planar leaves through adaxial-abaxial domains of gene activity establishing a polarity field that orients growth. In combination with an orthogonal proximodistal polarity field, this system can generate diverse leaf forms, and can account for the multiple evolutionary origins of cup-shaped leaves through simple shifts in gene expression.

A shared gene drives lateral root development and root nodule symbiosis pathways in Lotus



Legumes develop root nodules in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing rhizobial bacteria. Rhizobia evoke cell division of differentiated cortical cells into root nodule primordia for accommodating bacterial symbionts. In this study, they show that NODULE INCEPTION (NIN), a transcription factor in Lotus japonicus that is essential for initiating cortical cell divisions during nodulation, regulates the gene ASYMMETRIC LEAVES 2-LIKE 18/LATERAL ORGAN BOUNDARIES DOMAIN 16a (ASL18/LBD16a). Orthologs of ASL18/LBD16a in nonlegume plants are required for lateral root development. Coexpression of ASL18a and the CCAAT box–binding protein Nuclear Factor-Y (NF-Y) subunits, which are also directly targeted by NIN, partially suppressed the nodulation-defective phenotype of L. japonicus daphne mutants, in which cortical expression of NIN was attenuated. Their results demonstrate that ASL18a and NF-Y together regulate nodule organogenesis. Thus, a lateral root developmental pathway is incorporated downstream of NIN to drive nodule symbiosis.

TIR domains of plant immune receptors are NAD+-cleaving enzymes that promote cell death



Plant nucleotide-binding leucine-rich repeat (NLR) immune receptors activate cell death and confer disease resistance by unknown mechanisms. They demonstrate that plant Toll/interleukin-1 receptor (TIR) domains of NLRs are enzymes capable of degrading nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide in its oxidized form (NAD+). Both cell death induction and NAD+ cleavage activity of plant TIR domains require known self-association interfaces and a putative catalytic glutamic acid that is conserved in both bacterial TIR NAD+-cleaving enzymes (NADases) and the mammalian SARM1 (sterile alpha and TIR motif containing 1) NADase. We identify a variant of cyclic adenosine diphosphate ribose as a biomarker of TIR enzymatic activity. TIR enzymatic activity is induced by pathogen recognition and functions upstream of the genes enhanced disease susceptibility 1 (EDS1) and N requirement gene 1 (NRG1), which encode regulators required for TIR immune function. Thus, plant TIR-NLR receptors require NADase function to transduce recognition of pathogens into a cell death response.

NAD+ cleavage activity by animal and plant TIR domains in cell death pathways


SARM1 (sterile alpha and TIR motif containing 1) is responsible for depletion of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide in its oxidized form (NAD+) during Wallerian degeneration associated with neuropathies. Plant nucleotide-binding leucine-rich repeat (NLR) immune receptors recognize pathogen effector proteins and trigger localized cell death to restrict pathogen infection. Both processes depend on closely related Toll/interleukin-1 receptor (TIR) domains in these proteins, which, as they show, feature self-association–dependent NAD+ cleavage activity associated with cell death signaling. They further show that SARM1 SAM (sterile alpha motif) domains form an octamer essential for axon degeneration that contributes to TIR domain enzymatic activity. The crystal structures of ribose and NADP+ (the oxidized form of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate) complexes of SARM1 and plant NLR RUN1 TIR domains, respectively, reveal a conserved substrate binding site. NAD+ cleavage by TIR domains is therefore a conserved feature of animal and plant cell death signaling pathways.

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