Open Access Open Badges Research article

Global changes in gene expression during compatible and incompatible interactions of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata L.) with the root parasitic angiosperm Striga gesnerioides

Kan Huang1, Karolina E Mellor1, Shom N Paul2, Mark J Lawson2, Aaron J Mackey2 and Michael P Timko1*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Virginia, Gilmer Hall 044, Charlottesville, VA, 22904, USA

2 Center for Public Health Genomics, University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, VA, 22908, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Genomics 2012, 13:402  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-13-402

Published: 17 August 2012



Cowpea, Vigna unguiculata L. Walp., is one of the most important food and forage legumes in the semi-arid tropics. While most domesticated forms of cowpea are susceptible to the root parasitic weed Striga gesnerioides, several cultivars have been identified that show race-specific resistance. Cowpea cultivar B301 contains the RSG3-301 gene for resistance to S. gesnerioides race SG3, but is susceptible to race SG4z. When challenged by SG3, roots of cultivar B301 develop a strong resistance response characterized by a hypersensitive reaction and cell death at the site of parasite attachment. In contrast, no visible response occurs in B301 roots parasitized by SG4z.


Gene expression in the roots of the cowpea cultivar B301 during compatible (susceptible) and incompatible (resistant) interactions with S. gesnerioides races SG4z and SG3, respectively, were investigated at the early (6 days post-inoculation (dpi)) and late (13 dpi) stages of the resistance response using a Nimblegen custom design cowpea microarray. A total of 111 genes were differentially expressed in B301 roots at 6 dpi; this number increased to 2102 genes at 13 dpi. At 13 dpi, a total of 1944 genes were differentially expressed during compatible (susceptible) interactions of B301 with SG4z. Genes and pathways involved in signal transduction, programmed cell death and apoptosis, and defense response to biotic and abiotic stress were differentially expressed in the early resistance response; at the later time point, enrichment was primarily for defense-related gene expression, and genes encoding components of lignifications and secondary wall formation. In compatible interactions (B301 – SG4z), multiple defense pathways were repressed, including those involved in lignin biosynthesis and secondary cell wall modifications, while cellular transport processes for nitrogen and sulfur were increased.


Distinct changes in global gene expression profiles occur in host roots following successful and unsuccessful attempted parasitism by Striga. Induction of specific defense related genes and pathways defines components of a unique resistance mechanism. Some genes and pathways up-regulated in the host resistance response to SG3 are repressed in the susceptible interactions, suggesting that the parasite is targeting specific components of the host’s defense. These results add to our understanding of plant-parasite interactions and the evolution of resistance to parasitic weeds.

Cowpea; Defense; Resistance; Striga gesnerioides; Transcription; Vigna unguiculata; Witchweed