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Keywords:

  • floral development;
  • regulation of gene expression;
  • phytoplasma;
  • petunia;
  • plant responses;
  • floral quartet model

Summary

Abnormal flowers are often induced by infection of certain plant pathogens, e.g. phytoplasma, but the molecular mechanisms underlying these malformations have remained poorly understood. Here, we show that infection with OY-W phytoplasma (Candidatus Phytoplasma asteris, onion yellows phytoplasma strain, line OY-W) affects the expression of the floral homeotic genes of petunia plants in an organ-specific manner. Upon infection with OY-W phytoplasma, floral morphological changes, including conversion to leaf-like structures, were observed in sepals, petals and pistils, but not in stamens. As the expression levels of homeotic genes differ greatly between floral organs, we examined the expression levels of homeotic genes in each floral organ infected by OY-W phytoplasma, compared with healthy plants. The expression levels of several homeotic genes required for organ development, such as PFG, PhGLO1 and FBP7, were significantly downregulated by the phytoplasma infection in floral organs, except the stamens, suggesting that the unique morphological changes caused by the phytoplasma infection might result from the significant decrease in expression of some crucial homeotic genes. Moreover, the expression levels of TER, ALF and DOT genes, which are known to participate in floral meristem identity, were significantly downregulated in the phytoplasma-infected petunia meristems, implying that phytoplasma would affect an upstream signaling pathway of floral meristem identity. Our results suggest that phytoplasma infection may have complex effects on floral development, resulting in the unique phenotypes that were clearly distinct from the mutant flower phenotypes produced by the knock-out or the overexpression of certain homeotic genes.