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Open Access Research article

Progressive 35S promoter methylation increases rapidly during vegetative development in transgenic Nicotiana attenuata plants

Arne Weinhold*, Mario Kallenbach and Ian Thomas Baldwin

Author Affiliations

Department of Molecular Ecology, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knöll-Straße 8, Jena 07745, Germany

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BMC Plant Biology 2013, 13:99  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-13-99

Published: 9 July 2013

Abstract

Background

Genetically modified plants are widely used in agriculture and increasingly in ecological research to enable the selective manipulation of plant traits in the field. Despite their broad usage, many aspects of unwanted transgene silencing throughout plant development are still poorly understood. A transgene can be epigenetically silenced by a process called RNA directed DNA methylation (RdDM), which can be seen as a heritable loss of gene expression. The spontaneous nature of transgene silencing has been widely reported, but patterns of acquirement remain still unclear.

Results

Transgenic wild tobacco plants (Nicotiana attenuata) expressing heterologous genes coding for antimicrobial peptides displayed an erratic and variable occurrence of transgene silencing. We focused on three independently transformed lines (PNA 1.2, PNA 10.1 and ICE 4.4) as they rapidly lost the expression of the resistance marker and down-regulated transgene expression by more than 200 fold after only one plant generation. Bisulfite sequencing indicated hypermethylation within the 35S and NOS promoters of these lines. To shed light on the progress of methylation establishment, we successively sampled leaf tissues from different stages during plant development and found a rapid increase in 35S promoter methylation during vegetative growth (up to 77% absolute increase within 45 days of growth). The levels of de novo methylation were inherited by the offspring without any visible discontinuation. A secondary callus regeneration step could interfere with the establishment of gene silencing and we found successfully restored transgene expression in the offspring of several regenerants.

Conclusions

The unpredictability of the gene silencing process requires a thorough selection and early detection of unstable plant lines. De novo methylation of the transgenes was acquired solely during vegetative development and did not require a generational change for its establishment or enhancement. A secondary callus regeneration step provides a convenient way to rescue transgene expression without causing undesirable morphological effects, which is essential for experiments that use transformed plants in the analysis of ecologically important traits.