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Open Access Research article

miRNA164-directed cleavage of ZmNAC1 confers lateral root development in maize (Zea mays L.)

Jing Li12, Guanghui Guo12, Weiwei Guo12, Ganggang Guo12, Dan Tong12, Zhongfu Ni12, Qixin Sun12 and Yingyin Yao123*

Author Affiliations

1 State Key Laboratory for Agrobiotechnology and Key Laboratory of Crop Heterosis and Utilization (MOE) and Key Laboratory of Crop Genomics and Genetic Improvement (MOA), Beijing Key Laboratory of Crop Genetic Improvement, China Agricultural University, Beijing, 100193, China

2 National Plant Gene Research Centre (Beijing), Beijing, 100193, China

3 Department of Plant Genetics & Breeding, China Agricultural University, Yuanmingyuan Xi Road No. 2, Haidian District, Beijing, 100193, China

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BMC Plant Biology 2012, 12:220  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-12-220

Published: 21 November 2012



MicroRNAs are a class of small, non-coding RNAs that regulate gene expression by binding target mRNA, which leads to cleavage or translational inhibition. The NAC proteins, which include NAM, ATAF, and CUC, are a plant-specific transcription factor family with diverse roles in development and stress regulation. It has been reported that miR164 negatively regulates NAC1 expression, which in turn affects lateral root development in Arabidopsis; however, little is known about the involvement of the maize NAC family and miR164 in lateral root development.


We collected 175 maize transcripts with NAC domains. Of these, 7 ZmNACs were putative targets for regulation by miR164. We isolated one gene, called TC258020 (designated ZmNAC1) from 2 maize inbred lines, 87-1 and Zong3. ZmNAC1 had a high expression level in roots and showed higher abundance (1.8 fold) in Zong3 relative to 87-1, which had less lateral roots than Zong3. There was a significant correlation between the expression level of ZmNAC1 and the lateral root density in the recombinant inbred line (RIL) population. Transgenic Arabidopsis that overexpressed ZmNAC1 had increased lateral roots in comparison to the wild type. These findings suggest that ZmNAC1 played a significant role in lateral root development. An allelic expression assay showed that trans-regulatory elements were the dominant mediators of ZmNAC1 differential expression in 87-1 and Zong3, and further analysis revealed that miR164 was a trans-element that guided the cleavage of endogenous ZmNAC1 mRNA. Both mature miR164 and miR164 precursors had higher expression in 87-1 than Zong3, which was the opposite of the expression pattern of ZmNAC1. Additionally, the allelic assay showed that the cis-regulatory element most likely affected Zm-miR164b's expression pattern. A β-glucuronidase (GUS) assay showed that the Zm-miR164b promoter had higher GUS activity in 87-1 than in Zong3. In addition, we detected miR164b expression in the RIL population, and the results indicated that miR164b had a higher expression level in the RILs containing 87-1 promoter than those containing Zong3 promoter.


Our results indicate one possible pathway in maize by which differences in miR164b promoter activity resulted in a different expression pattern for mature miR164 which negatively regulates ZmNAC1 expression in 87-1 and Zong3, thereby contributing to a significantly different lateral root phenotype.

Maize ZmNAC1; miR164; Lateral root