Medicago sativa (alfalfa) is a low-input forage and potential bioenergy crop, and improving its yield and quality has always been a focus of the alfalfa breeding industry. Transgenic alfalfa plants overexpressing a precursor of alfalfa microRNA156 (MsmiR156) were recently generated by our group. These plants (miR156OE) showed enhanced biomass yield, reduced internodal length, increased shoot branching and trichome density, and a delay in flowering time. Transcripts of three SQUAMOSA-PROMOTER BINDING PROTEIN-LIKE (SPL) genes (MsSPL6, MsSPL12, and MsSPL13) were found to be targeted for cleavage by MsmiR156 in alfalfa.
To further illustrate the molecular mechanisms underlying the effects of miR156 in alfalfa, two miR156OE genotypes (A11a and A17) were subjected to Next Generation RNA Sequencing with Illumina HiSeq. More than 1.11 billion clean reads were obtained from our available sequenced samples. A total of 160,472 transcripts were generated using Trinity de novo assembly and 4,985 significantly differentially expressed genes were detected in miR156OE plants A11a and A17 using the Medicago truncatula genome as reference. A total of 17 genes (including upregulated, downregulated, and unchanged) were selected for quantitative real-time PCR (qRT-PCR) validation, which showed that gene expression levels were largely consistent between qRT-PCR and RNA-Seq data. In addition to the established SPL genes MsSPL6, MsSPL12 and MsSPL13, four new SPLs; MsSPL2, MsSPL3, MsSPL4 and MsSPL9 were also down-regulated significantly in both miR156OE plants. These seven SPL genes belong to genes phylogeny clades VI, IV, VIII, V and VII, which have been reported to be targeted by miR156 in Arabidopsis thaliana. The gene ontology terms characterized electron transporter, starch synthase activity, sucrose transport, sucrose-phosphate synthase activity, chitin binding, sexual reproduction, flavonoid biosynthesis and lignin catabolism correlate well to the phenotypes of miR156OE alfalfa plants.
This is the first report of changes in global gene expression in response to miR156 overexpression in alfalfa. The discovered miR156-targeted SPL genes belonging to different clades indicate miR156 plays fundamental and multifunctional roles in regulating alfalfa plant development.