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A Transposable Element In A NAC Gene Is Associated With Drought Tolerance In Maize Seedlings

H. Mao, Hongwei Wang, Shengxue Liu, Z. Li, X. Yang, J. Yan, J. Li, L. Tran, F. Qin
Published 2015 · Medicine, Biology

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Drought represents a major constraint on maize production worldwide. Understanding the genetic basis for natural variation in drought tolerance of maize may facilitate efforts to improve this trait in cultivated germplasm. Here, using a genome-wide association study, we show that a miniature inverted-repeat transposable element (MITE) inserted in the promoter of a NAC gene (ZmNAC111) is significantly associated with natural variation in maize drought tolerance. The 82-bp MITE represses ZmNAC111 expression via RNA-directed DNA methylation and H3K9 dimethylation when heterologously expressed in Arabidopsis. Increasing ZmNAC111 expression in transgenic maize enhances drought tolerance at the seedling stage, improves water-use efficiency and induces upregulation of drought-responsive genes under water stress. The MITE insertion in the ZmNAC111 promoter appears to have occurred after maize domestication and spread among temperate germplasm. The identification of this MITE insertion provides insight into the genetic basis for natural variation in maize drought tolerance.
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