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Open Access Research article

Rootstock-regulated gene expression patterns associated with fire blight resistance in apple

Philip J Jensen1, Noemi Halbrendt12, Gennaro Fazio3, Izabela Makalowska4, Naomi Altman5, Craig Praul6, Siela N Maximova7, Henry K Ngugi12, Robert M Crassweller7, James W Travis12 and Timothy W McNellis1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Plant Pathology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

2 The Pennsylvania State University Fruit Research and Extension Center, Biglerville, PA 17307, USA

3 USDA/ARS, Plant Genetics Research Unit, Geneva, NY 14456, USA

4 Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Faculty of Biology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland

5 Department of Statistics, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

6 Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

7 Department of Horticulture, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

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BMC Genomics 2012, 13:9  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-13-9

Published: 9 January 2012



Desirable apple varieties are clonally propagated by grafting vegetative scions onto rootstocks. Rootstocks influence many phenotypic traits of the scion, including resistance to pathogens such as Erwinia amylovora, which causes fire blight, the most serious bacterial disease of apple. The purpose of the present study was to quantify rootstock-mediated differences in scion fire blight susceptibility and to identify transcripts in the scion whose expression levels correlated with this response.


Rootstock influence on scion fire blight resistance was quantified by inoculating three-year old, orchard-grown apple trees, consisting of 'Gala' scions grafted to a range of rootstocks, with E. amylovora. Disease severity was measured by the extent of shoot necrosis over time. 'Gala' scions grafted to G.30 or MM.111 rootstocks showed the lowest rates of necrosis, while 'Gala' on M.27 and B.9 showed the highest rates of necrosis. 'Gala' scions on M.7, S.4 or M.9F56 had intermediate necrosis rates. Using an apple DNA microarray representing 55,230 unique transcripts, gene expression patterns were compared in healthy, un-inoculated, greenhouse-grown 'Gala' scions on the same series of rootstocks. We identified 690 transcripts whose steady-state expression levels correlated with the degree of fire blight susceptibility of the scion/rootstock combinations. Transcripts known to be differentially expressed during E. amylovora infection were disproportionately represented among these transcripts. A second-generation apple microarray representing 26,000 transcripts was developed and was used to test these correlations in an orchard-grown population of trees segregating for fire blight resistance. Of the 690 transcripts originally identified using the first-generation array, 39 had expression levels that correlated with fire blight resistance in the breeding population.


Rootstocks had significant effects on the fire blight susceptibility of 'Gala' scions, and rootstock-regulated gene expression patterns could be correlated with differences in susceptibility. The results suggest a relationship between rootstock-regulated fire blight susceptibility and sorbitol dehydrogenase, phenylpropanoid metabolism, protein processing in the endoplasmic reticulum, and endocytosis, among others. This study illustrates the utility of our rootstock-regulated gene expression data sets for candidate trait-associated gene data mining.