Open Access Research article

Arabidopsis mutant sk156 reveals complex regulation of SPL15 in a miR156-controlled gene network

Shu Wei12, Margaret Y Gruber2*, Bianyun Yu23, Ming-Jun Gao2, George G Khachatourians4, Dwayne D Hegedus2, Isobel AP Parkin2 and Abdelali Hannoufa5*

Author Affiliations

1 College of Tea & Food Science and Technology, Anhui Agricultural University, 130 Changjiang Blvd West, Hefei, 230036, China

2 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 107 Science Place, Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0X2, Canada

3 Current address: Plant Biotechnology Institute, National Research Council of Canada, 110 Gymnasium Place, Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0W9, Canada

4 Department of Food and Bioproduct Sciences, University of Saskatchewan, 51 Campus Drive, Saskatoon, SK, S7N 5A8, Canada

5 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 1391 Sandford Street, London, ON, N5V 5T3, Canada

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BMC Plant Biology 2012, 12:169  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-12-169

Published: 18 September 2012



The Arabidopsis microRNA156 (miR156) regulates 11 members of the SQUAMOSA PROMOTER BINDING PROTEIN LIKE (SPL) family by base pairing to complementary target mRNAs. Each SPL gene further regulates a set of other genes; thus, miR156 controls numerous genes through a complex gene regulation network. Increased axillary branching occurs in transgenic Arabidopsis overexpressing miR156b, similar to that observed in loss-of-function max3 and max4 mutants with lesions in carotenoid cleavage dioxygenases. Arabidopsis miR156b was found to enhance carotenoid levels and reproductive shoot branching when expressed in Brassica napus, suggesting a link between miR156b expression and carotenoid metabolism. However, details of the miR156 regulatory network of SPL genes related to carotenoid metabolism are not known.


In this study, an Arabidopsis T-DNA enhancer mutant, sk156, was identified due to its altered branching and trichome morphology and increased seed carotenoid levels compared to wild type (WT) ecovar Columbia. Enhanced miR156b expression due to the 35S enhancers present on the T-DNA insert was responsible for these phenotypes. Constitutive and leaf primodium-specific expression of a miR156-insensitive (mutated) SPL15 (SPL15m) largely restored WT seed carotenoid levels and plant morphology when expressed in sk156. The Arabidopsis native miR156-sensitive SPL15 (SPL15n) and SPL15m driven by a native SPL15 promoter did not restore the WT phenotype in sk156. Our findings suggest that SPL15 function is somewhat redundant with other SPL family members, which collectively affect plant phenotypes. Moreover, substantially decreased miR156b transcript levels in sk156 expressing SPL15m, together with the presence of multiple repeats of SPL-binding GTAC core sequence close to the miR156b transcription start site, suggested feedback regulation of miR156b expression by SPL15. This was supported by the demonstration of specific in vitro interaction between DNA-binding SBP domain of SPL15 and the proximal promoter sequence of miR156b.


Enhanced miR156b expression in sk156 leads to the mutant phenotype including carotenoid levels in the seed through suppression of SPL15 and other SPL target genes. Moreover, SPL15 has a regulatory role not only for downstream components, but also for its own upstream regulator miR156b.