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Open Access Research article

Transcriptional responses to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon-induced stress in Arabidopsis thaliana reveal the involvement of hormone and defense signaling pathways

David Weisman1, Merianne Alkio2 and Adán Colón-Carmona1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts Boston, 100 Morrissey Blvd, Boston, MA 02125, USA

2 Institute of Biological Production Systems, Fruit Science Section, Leibniz University Hannover, Herrenhäuser Str 2, D-30419 Hannover, Germany

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BMC Plant Biology 2010, 10:59  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-10-59

Published: 7 April 2010



Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are toxic, widely-distributed, environmentally persistent, and carcinogenic byproducts of carbon-based fuel combustion. Previously, plant studies have shown that PAHs induce oxidative stress, reduce growth, and cause leaf deformation as well as tissue necrosis. To understand the transcriptional changes that occur during these processes, we performed microarray experiments on Arabidopsis thaliana L. under phenanthrene treatment, and compared the results to published Arabidopsis microarray data representing a variety of stress and hormone treatments. In addition, to probe hormonal aspects of PAH stress, we assayed transgenic ethylene-inducible reporter plants as well as ethylene pathway mutants under phenanthrene treatment.


Microarray results revealed numerous perturbations in signaling and metabolic pathways that regulate reactive oxygen species (ROS) and responses related to pathogen defense. A number of glutathione S-transferases that may tag xenobiotics for transport to the vacuole were upregulated. Comparative microarray analyses indicated that the phenanthrene response was closely related to other ROS conditions, including pathogen defense conditions. The ethylene-inducible transgenic reporters were activated by phenanthrene. Mutant experiments showed that PAH inhibits growth through an ethylene-independent pathway, as PAH-treated ethylene-insensitive etr1-4 mutants exhibited a greater growth reduction than WT. Further, phenanthrene-treated, constitutive ethylene signaling mutants had longer roots than the untreated control plants, indicating that the PAH inhibits parts of the ethylene signaling pathway.


This study identified major physiological systems that participate in the PAH-induced stress response in Arabidopsis. At the transcriptional level, the results identify specific gene targets that will be valuable in finding lead compounds and engineering increased tolerance. Collectively, the results open a number of new avenues for researching and improving plant resilience and PAH phytoremediation.