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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evolution of plant senescence

Howard Thomas1*, Lin Huang2, Mike Young1 and Helen Ougham2

Author Affiliations

1 IBERS, Aberystwyth University, Ceredigion, SY23 3DA, UK

2 IBERS, Aberystwyth University, Plas Gogerddan, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 3EB, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:163  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-163

Published: 14 July 2009

Abstract

Background

Senescence is integral to the flowering plant life-cycle. Senescence-like processes occur also in non-angiosperm land plants, algae and photosynthetic prokaryotes. Increasing numbers of genes have been assigned functions in the regulation and execution of angiosperm senescence. At the same time there has been a large expansion in the number and taxonomic spread of plant sequences in the genome databases. The present paper uses these resources to make a study of the evolutionary origins of angiosperm senescence based on a survey of the distribution, across plant and microbial taxa, and expression of senescence-related genes.

Results

Phylogeny analyses were carried out on protein sequences corresponding to genes with demonstrated functions in angiosperm senescence. They include proteins involved in chlorophyll catabolism and its control, homeoprotein transcription factors, metabolite transporters, enzymes and regulators of carotenoid metabolism and of anthocyanin biosynthesis. Evolutionary timelines for the origins and functions of particular genes were inferred from the taxonomic distribution of sequences homologous to those of angiosperm senescence-related proteins. Turnover of the light energy transduction apparatus is the most ancient element in the senescence syndrome. By contrast, the association of phenylpropanoid metabolism with senescence, and integration of senescence with development and adaptation mediated by transcription factors, are relatively recent innovations of land plants. An extended range of senescence-related genes of Arabidopsis was profiled for coexpression patterns and developmental relationships and revealed a clear carotenoid metabolism grouping, coordinated expression of genes for anthocyanin and flavonoid enzymes and regulators and a cluster pattern of genes for chlorophyll catabolism consistent with functional and evolutionary features of the pathway.

Conclusion

The expression and phylogenetic characteristics of senescence-related genes allow a framework to be constructed of decisive events in the evolution of the senescence syndrome of modern land-plants. Combining phylogenetic, comparative sequence, gene expression and morphogenetic information leads to the conclusion that biochemical, cellular, integrative and adaptive systems were progressively added to the ancient primary core process of senescence as the evolving plant encountered new environmental and developmental contexts.