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Comparative analysis of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) leaf transcriptomes reveals genotype-specific salt tolerance mechanisms

Lei, Yunting, Xu, Yuxing, Hettenhausen, Christian, Lu, Chengkai, Shen, Guojing, Zhang, Cuiping, Li, Jing, Song, Juan, Lin, Honghui, Wu, Jianqiang
BMC plant biology 2018 v.18 no.1 pp. 35
Medicago sativa, alfalfa, biosynthesis, biotic stress, calcium, cultivars, embryophytes, forage crops, gene expression regulation, genes, leaves, photosynthesis, physiological state, plant adaptation, plant hormones, potassium, salt stress, salt tolerance, sequence analysis, sodium, soil salinity, transcription (genetics), transcription factors, transcriptome
BACKGROUND: Soil salinity is an important factor affecting growth, development, and productivity of almost all land plants, including the forage crop alfalfa (Medicago sativa). However, little is known about how alfalfa responds and adapts to salt stress, particularly among different salt-tolerant cultivars. RESULTS: Among seven alfalfa cultivars, we found that Zhongmu-1 (ZM) is relatively salt-tolerant and Xingjiang Daye (XJ) is salt-sensitive. Compared to XJ, ZM showed slower growth under low-salt conditions, but exhibited stronger tolerance to salt stress. RNA-seq analysis revealed 2237 and 1125 differentially expressed genes (DEGs) between ZM and XJ in the presence and absence of salt stress, among which many genes are involved in stress-related pathways. After salt treatment, compared with the controls, the number of DEGs in XJ (19373) was about four times of that in ZM (4833). We also detected specific differential gene expression patterns: In response to salt stress, compared with XJ, ZM maintained relatively more stable expression levels of genes related to the ROS and Ca²⁺ pathways, phytohormone biosynthesis, and Na⁺/K⁺ transport. Notably, several salt resistance-associated genes always showed greater levels of expression in ZM than in XJ, including a transcription factor. Consistent with the suppression of plant growth resulting from salt stress, the expression of numerous photosynthesis- and growth hormone-related genes decreased more dramatically in XJ than in ZM. By contrast, the expression levels of photosynthetic genes were lower in ZM under low-salt conditions. CONCLUSIONS: Compared with XJ, ZM is a salt-tolerant alfalfa cultivar possessing specific regulatory mechanisms conferring exceptional salt tolerance, likely by maintaining high transcript levels of abiotic and biotic stress resistance-related genes. Our results suggest that maintaining this specific physiological status and/or plant adaptation to salt stress most likely arises by inhibition of plant growth in ZM through plant hormone interactions. This study identifies new candidate genes that may regulate alfalfa tolerance to salt stress and increases the understanding of the genetic basis for salt tolerance.