Network analysis reveals the relationship among wood properties, gene expression levels and genotypes of natural Populus trichocarpa accessions



  • High-throughput approaches have been widely applied to elucidate the genetic underpinnings of industrially important wood properties. Wood traits are polygenic in nature, but gene hierarchies can be assessed to identify the most important gene variants controlling specific traits within complex networks defining the overall wood phenotype. We tested a large set of genetic, genomic, and phenotypic information in an integrative approach to predict wood properties in Populus trichocarpa.
  • Nine-yr-old natural P. trichocarpa trees including accessions with high contrasts in six traits related to wood chemistry and ultrastructure were profiled for gene expression on 49k Nimblegen (Roche NimbleGen Inc., Madison, WI, USA) array elements and for 28 831 polymorphic single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Pre-selected transcripts and SNPs with high statistical dependence on phenotypic traits were used in Bayesian network learning procedures with a stepwise K2 algorithm to infer phenotype-centric networks.
  • Transcripts were pre-selected at a much lower logarithm of Bayes factor (logBF) threshold than SNPs and were not accommodated in the networks. Using persistent variables, we constructed cross-validated networks for variability in wood attributes, which contained four to six variables with 94–100% predictive accuracy.
  • Accommodated gene variants revealed the hierarchy in the genetic architecture that underpins substantial phenotypic variability, and represent new tools to support the maximization of response to selection.


Wood formation in trees is a complex process under strict developmental control. Its initiation occurs at the vascular cambium by cell differentiation; the stages of secondary xylem (wood) development involve cell division, cell expansion, cell wall thickening by deposition of the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicelluloses and the polyphenolic polymer lignin, and programmed cell death (Plomion et al., 2001). Phytohormones such as auxin, cytokinin, gibberellins and ethylene regulate cambium activity, and xylogenesis is environmentally triggered by photoperiodic and temperature stimuli (Ursache et al., 2012). The regulation of secondary cell wall deposition involves coordinated expression of many genes in a tissue-specific and developmental manner, including genes with regulatory functions (i.e. transcription factors) and structural functions, and this expression is governed by complex gene regulatory networks (Hertzberg et al., 2001; Persson et al., 2005; Demura & Ye, 2010; Ursache et al., 2012; Wang & Dixon, 2012). At the macromolecular level, the relative amount as well as the structure of all three major wood components (cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin) defines the mechanical and biochemical properties of wood that are important to industrial applications. For example, wood density is defined by cell wall thickness, the proportions of thick- to thin-walled cells and the structural organization of cells, which together determine the amount of void volume in the wood (porosity). Also, in angiosperms, the proportion of vessels to fibres has an impact on density, with a higher proportion of fibres to vessels yielding higher density. Lignin content is another important industrial trait, as Kraft pulps derived from wood with high lignin content require extensive bleaching to increase paper quality and durability (Hon, 1981). Wood traits that are of particular interest for the production of cellulosic biofuels such as ethanol are those related to enzymatic release of fermentable sugars following biomass pretreatment (lignin and hemicelluloses content), and yield relative to biomass volume (wood density, relative alpha-cellulose content and relative glucose content).

Populus species (poplars) are fast growing and adapted across broad latitudinal ranges, but have not been domesticated to optimize traits of economic importance. One approach to improving poplars as a feedstock for industrial applications is to use transgenic methods (Vanholme et al., 2010). However, these changes can also drastically impair tree physiology when the extreme phenotype is selected and/or transgenes are constitutively or ectopically expressed (Coleman et al., 2008; Kitin et al., 2010; Voelker et al., 2011). An alternative approach is the use of breeding to capitalize on the substantial variation that exists in wood and lignocellulosic traits in natural and breeding populations. Consequently, there is increasing interest in establishing links between relevant phenotypes and genetic variants (Ingvarsson & Street, 2011), as this information can facilitate rapid genetic improvement of trees as biomass and bioenergy feedstocks via the implementation of marker-assisted breeding (Neale & Kremer, 2011; Harfouche et al., 2012; Nieminen et al., 2012). However, as wood chemical composition and ultrastructure are highly complex traits (Dinus, 2000), dissection of the genetic architecture underlying such variation in cell wall traits is challenging, and the current knowledge of genetic underpinnings that underlie essential biofuel and biomass traits is incomplete.

Gene expression profiling studies using microarrays have been widely used to examine the process of wood formation in poplar (e.g., Hertzberg et al., 2001; Schrader et al., 2004) and in Pinus radiata, gene expression analysis of individuals with contrasting wood properties identified differentially expressed candidate genes that may directly relate transcriptional regulation to particular wood traits (Li et al., 2011, 2012). Such approaches offer the opportunity to recover a distinct transcriptome correlated to the trait under study (Li et al., 2011, 2012).

In the search for candidate genes whose allelic variants may impact wood formation and wood traits, quantitative genetics approaches have been pursued. These approaches encompass quantitative trait locus (QTL) studies which dissect phenotypic trait variation in controlled crosses by linkage to segregating genetic markers (QTLs; Pot et al., 2002; Kirst et al., 2004; Novaes et al., 2009; Thumma et al., 2010), and association genetics studies that identify significant associations between trait variation and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in ‘unstructured’ populations (Gonzalez-Martinez et al., 2007; Thumma et al., 2009; Wegrzyn et al., 2010; Beaulieu et al., 2011; Porth et al., 2013a). However, these approaches cannot be easily used to elucidate how genes and gene variants interact with each other, nor can they achieve the goal of effectively predicting combined effects of genetic variants on a phenotype. Gene expression network analysis provides a method for elucidating such gene–gene interactions (Bassel et al., 2012). Starting from approaches that determine interactions based on Pearson correlations between gene-pair expression levels to describe co-regulation (relevance networks), partial correlations have been computed to assess direct interactions between gene pairs conditioned on the behaviour of other genes (Ma et al., 2007).

In the present study, we undertook a different approach, that is, to infer for each studied wood trait a network of genetic variables that conjointly represent the most accurate predictor for the substantial natural variation in a particular attribute. Thus, we inferred Bayesian networks of genetic variants (SNPs) and expression variation with all nodes linked to the phenotype, that is, directed and phenotype-centric networks (Chang & McGeachie, 2011), in our study population. By testing each transcript and each SNP individually for their likelihood of dependence on the phenotype, we introduced only highly informative variables into the network learning approach. We investigated a set of black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) accessions for transcriptome differences using a 49k Nimblegen (Roche NimbleGen Inc., Madison, WI, USA) poplar gene expression microarray. These accessions were selected on the basis of highly contrasting wood properties (Porth et al., 2013b) that were grouped according to their phenotypic properties, allowing pair-wise comparisons of individuals with contrasting extremes in wood phenotypes. We identified transcripts that showed statistically significant differential expression levels in the developing xylem of individuals with contrasting wood properties and then used the genotyping information from a set of 28 831 polymorphic SNPs in 3543 candidate genes (Geraldes et al., 2013; Porth et al., 2013a) as well as the expression levels of genes represented on the 49K Nimblegen array to test whether a variable (continuous transcript or discrete SNP) showed statistical dependence on a wood attribute. The identified variables were then used in a network learning approach and phenotype-centric networks were computed according to the approach of Chang & McGeachie (2011). Phenotype-centric networks were validated by predicting each phenotype based on persistent variables included in the networks, demonstrating the utility of this approach in predicting relationship between genotypes and wood properties in natural P. trichocarpa accessions.

Materials and Methods

Black cottonwood samples

Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa Torr. & Gray) individuals were grown in a common garden in Surrey, BC, Canada. The origin of the samples is described in Xie et al. (2009) and their geographical origin is displayed in Fig. 1. In 2008, wood cores were taken from 9-yr-old trees and phenotyped for wood chemistry and ultrastructure traits (Porth et al., 2013b). Details of the wood trait analysis are found in Porth et al. (2013b). The individuals selected for the present study were identified as trees ranking very high and very low, respectively, in a range-wide distribution of phenotypic values in P. trichocarpa. The range of phenotypic values in these individuals can be found in Supporting Information Table S1.

Figure 1.

Geographical origins of 16 Populus trichocarpa accessions with two biological replicates in the common-garden field (Surrey, BC, Canada) used for microarray expression profiling and subsequent analyses. Displayed are the 15 different drainages located in the Pacific Northwest (BC, Canada; Oregon, USA) from which the samples originated; note that drainage LONG29 has two samples; for details about the classifications of each sample in terms of the five wood chemistry traits and one ultrastructure trait, see Supporting Information Tables S1 and S2.

SNP genotyping

Genotyping of P. trichocarpa individuals was carried out using the Illumina (Illumina Inc., San Diego, CA, USA) 34k Populus SNP genotyping array with 34 131 SNPs from 3543 candidate genes, described in detail by Geraldes et al. (2013). We eliminated SNPs with: minor allele frequency below 0.05; > 10% missing values; and Illumina's GeneTrain score below 0.5. These selection criteria reduced the total number of SNPs genotyped to 29 233.

Source of RNA for expression profiling

We identified poplar individuals with the most extreme phenotypes in six wood traits (relative glucose, alpha-cellulose, xylose, total hemicellulose and lignin contents, and average wood density) using phenotype data (Porth et al., 2013b) from 384 9-yr-old P. trichocarpa trees grown in a common-garden plot (located 49.18°N and 122.85°W; Surrey, BC, Canada) representing populations that span a latitudinal range of 44.0–58.6°N. In total, 17 genotypes with two biological replicates, and two additional genotypes without a second replicate, with contrasting wood phenotypes were individually profiled for transcriptome analysis (Table S1); the experimental set-up is shown in Table S2. Developing xylem was harvested at breast height from the north side of each tree stem on the morning of 9 June 2011 by first removing a window of bark that also contained cambium cells from the stem to expose the underlying current-year developing xylem. This material, but not underlying mature xylem, was scraped with uniform pressure using sterile razor blades to remove several layers of developing, but not mature, secondary xylem cells. The tissue was immediately flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored at −80°C until used. RNA extractions and quality control of the extracted RNA were carried out as described previously (Geraldes et al., 2011). Total RNA quality was assessed with the Agilent 2100 Bioanalyzer (Agilent Technologies Inc., Santa Clara, CA, USA) before microarray analysis. Samples with an RNA integrity number (RIN) value of ≥ 8.0 were used for microarray analysis.

Gene expression profiling and analysis

For gene expression analysis, we employed the Populus Gene Expression 12x135k Array (#GPL16717) (Roche NimbleGen) based on 48 146 nuclear gene models from version 1.1 of the Populus trichocarpa genome assembly and annotation (described in Tsai et al., 2011). We re-annotated array features according to version 2.2 of the Populus trichocarpa genome assembly and annotation, which includes 34 845 unique version 2.2 gene models and additional annotations based on similarity to Eucalyptus grandis genes (Table S3). Microarray hybridizations and basic bioinformatics analysis were carried out at the Nimblegen processing site (Jack Bell Research Centre, Prostate Centre, Vancouver, BC, Canada). RNA samples were hybridized to three NimbleGen 12-plex poplar arrays totalling 36 hybridizations. Samples were prepared following NimbleGen's Arrays User Guide Gene Expression Analysis version 3.2. In brief, 10 μg of each total RNA was converted to double-stranded (ds) cDNA with the Invitrogen SuperScript Double-Stranded cDNA Synthesis Kit, 1 μg of each ds cDNA was fluorescently labelled using the NimbleGen One-Color DNA Labeling Kit, and 4 μg of each Cy3-labelled sample was hybridized on Roche Nimblegen poplar gene expression microarrays (Design Name Populus 135K EXP HX12 090828). Arrays were scanned at a 5 μm resolution with the Molecular Devices (Molecular Devices LLC, Sunnyvale, CA, USA) GenePix 4200AL scanner. NimbleScan version 2.5 (Roche NimbleGen) was used for quantitation and RMA normalization of data, which included quantile normalization and background subtraction. Agilent's GeneSpring 7.3.1 (Agilent Technologies Inc., Santa Clara, CA, USA) was used to analyze the normalized data. The microarray signal intensities were deposited at National Center for Biotechnology (NCBI) GEO database #GSE44606.

To find significantly up- or down-regulated genes, fold changes between the compared groups and P-values obtained from t-tests comparing the same groups were calculated. The t-tests were performed on normalized data that had been log-transformed and the variances were not assumed to be equal between sample groups (Welch test). We applied a relatively low P-value (< 0.05) and a lower fold-change cut-off (FC > 1.2) than many microarray-based expression profiling studies, similar to Li et al. (2011), because small variations in the expression of many genes were expected in the study population. Biological replicates (including the ramets) were treated independently; that is, they were not averaged in the t-test analysis.

Random Forest, a classification algorithm (Breiman, 2001), was recently introduced for pre-selecting genes from microarray experiments (Diaz-Uriarte & de Andres, 2006). This method was shown to be robust to the inherent characteristics of microarray data (noisy expression phenotypes; number of variables largely exceeds number of observations), and provides the advantage of being applicable to multi-class problems for class prediction. We tested predictabilities using this algorithm optimized for microarray data (Diaz-Uriarte & de Andres, 2006) by running R scripts implemented in the web version SNPs were pre-selected using R scripts (Bureau et al., 2005).

Integrative network analysis

A set of 16 different genotypes (each with two ramets) with available genotype information were assigned to high, medium, and low phenotype subclasses, and expression levels of duplicate genotypes in each class were averaged using both biological replicates (Table S4). A Bayesian network-based analysis was performed on gene expression, SNP and wood phenotype data using scripts in Matlab (MathWorks Inc., Natick, MA, USA) kindly provided by Drs H. H. Chang and M. McGeachie (Harvard Medical School, MA, USA). We used expression data from c. 49k Nimblegen array elements and genotype information involving 28 831 polymorphic SNPs. Missing genotype values were replaced by imputed values using the R-package synbreed (Wimmer et al., 2012). The network analysis followed the methodologies previously described (Ferrazzi et al., 2007; Chang & McGeachie, 2011). Briefly, we recoded genotypes as homozygous for major allele frequency (0), heterozygous (1), and homozygous for minor allele frequency (2). First, pre-selection of transcripts and SNPs identified variables with a high probability of being statistically dependent on the phenotypic trait. We performed Gaussian linear regression using R scripts within the library MCMCpack (Martin & Quinn, 2007) to determine the log Bayes factor that provides information about the model fit using the tested variable (in model M2) against the intercept model with solely the population mean in the regression equation (i.e. reduced model M1). Hence, the Bayes factor was determined as follows:

display math

Then, the selected variables were used in a Bayesian network learning procedure (stepwise K2 algorithm) to infer a phenotype-centric network that best explains the pre-selected SNPs and gene expression levels previously conditioned on the quantitative trait. An important convention is the directionality of the flow of genetic information (DNA → RNA) and setting the maximum number of parents for each node. In sum, this integrative network analysis has the potential to uncover the following interactions: SNP–SNP, SNP–transcript, transcript–transcript, phenotype–SNP, and phenotype–transcript. The individual variables directly associated with the phenotype in the network were used in a local propagation algorithm to test the predictive accuracy of the network (Chang & McGeachie, 2011). Networks were displayed using yEd graph editor software (yEd 3.9.2; yWorks 2012, yWorks GmbH, Tuebingen, Germany).


Differences in wood attributes are associated with highly complex transcriptome variation

Using the 49k Nimblegen microarray, we profiled gene expression in the developing xylem of P. trichocarpa (poplar) samples that represent independent poplar genotypes with extreme phenotypes. The trees grown in a common garden originated from individual drainages in southwestern British Columbia and northwestern USA (Fig. 1). We collected two ramets from most genotypes for RNA isolation, compared the gene expression profiles of individuals that grouped together according to their phenotypic properties, and performed pair-wise comparisons between groups of individuals with highly contrasting wood attributes (see Table S2 for microarray hybridization experimental design). First, we applied a univariate ranking method to prioritize transcripts for further investigation. To identify differentially transcribed genes in developing xylem of individuals with contrasting wood properties, fold-change values between the compared groups and P-values derived from t-tests comparing the same groups were calculated. The t-tests were performed on log-transformed normalized data. Table 1 summarizes significant differences in developing xylem gene expression between trees in contrasting trait bins (high versus low for five trait comparisons). Comprehensive data from all performed t-tests can be found in Table S5, including significant increases or decreases in steady-state transcript abundance that indicate mode of gene action. These data revealed extensive gene expression differences in steady-state transcript abundance between poplar individuals with contrasting wood attributes, and suggest that gene expression variation could underlie some of the phenotypic variation observed between these individuals. Results using the false discovery rate (FDR) approach for multiple testing corrections across all 49k genes from the array are summarized in Table S6(a). In contrast to univariate methods which provide low power for variables with marginal effects in the population, but large interaction effects, Random Forest, a clustering method in phenotype class prediction, is capable of detecting higher order interactions among variables (Lunetta et al., 2004). Thus, we tested the Random Forest algorithm for gene selection (Diaz-Uriarte & de Andres, 2006), and transcripts relevant in class prediction were identified (Table 1) and are summarized in Table S6(b). For each phenotype the prediction error rate (0.632+ bootstrap method; Efron & Tibshirani, 1997) was estimated: alpha-cellulose (0.39295), glucose (0.35722), density (0.46731), lignin (0.38893), hemicelluloses (0.441449), and xylose (0.44296). Finally, a third approach involving regression on phenotypes was performed to identify relevant transcripts and is detailed in the following section.

Table 1. Comparison of different methods for variable (genes and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)) pre-selection conditional on phenotype variation in Populus trichocarpa
TraitVariable pre-selection typeNo. of genesbNo. of SNPs
  1. FC, fold change; FDR, false discovery rate; na, not applicable; RF, Random Forest; logBF, logarithm of Bayes factor.

  2. a

    P-value < 0.05, FC > 1.2; in brackets is the number of genes at q < 0.1; FDR estimation following Storey & Tibshirani (2003); the number of trees/arrays used in each comparison can be found in Supporting Information Tables S2 and S4; for t-tests, the number of unigenes is shown; note that for the two class comparisons, that is, high/low in t-tests, for hemicelluloses and xylose phenotypes the same individuals were used.

  3. b

    Overlap of variables (genes) among methods provided in Fig. S1.

  4. c

    Li et al. (2011, 2012).

  5. d

    Diaz-Uriarte & de Andres (2006) and Breiman (2001).

  6. e

    logBF > 0 (genes), logBF > 2 (SNPs).

  7. f

    Chang & McGeachie (2011).

Alpha-celluloset-testa,c1163 (6)na
Glucoset-testa,c984 (2)na
Densityt-testa,c823 (1)na
Lignint-testa,c1151 (6)na
Hemicelluloset-testa,c1781 (22)na
Xyloset-testa,c1781 (22)na

Identification of transcripts and SNPs statistically dependent on variation in the wood attributes

To extend the above observations, we attempted to identify combinations of transcript abundance from microarray expression profiling using the 49k Nimblegen poplar microarray and SNPs that were related to a given wood attribute. For this analysis, 16 genotypes (accessions) were assigned to high, medium, and low phenotype subclasses for each trait. Genotypes of each accession were determined for a set of 28 831 polymorphic high-quality SNPs derived from hybridization to a 34k Illumina Populus genotyping array (see the 'Materials and Methods' section; Geraldes et al., 2013; Porth et al., 2013a). However, to avoid over-fitting of the model in the subsequent Bayesian network analysis, we decided to perform log Bayes factor (logBF) variable pre-selection for both transcripts as well as SNPs. The logBF threshold criteria used to identify variables (transcript abundance and SNPs) that were highly dependent on phenotype were logBF > 0 for transcripts and logBF > 2 for SNPs. Different BF criteria for SNPs and transcripts were chosen according to Chang & McGeachie (2011).

This approach identified several SNPs and transcripts related to phenotypic variation in the traits measured; there were 78 SNPs (located within 51 different genes) and one transcript for wood density, 72 SNPs (within 52 genes) and five transcripts for relative alpha-cellulose content, 73 SNPs (within 59 genes) and seven transcripts for relative glucose content, 49 SNPs (within 36 genes) and eight transcripts for relative hemicellulose content, 56 SNPs (within 42 genes) and 10 transcripts for relative xylose content, and finally 141 SNPs (within 112 genes) and three transcripts for relative lignin content. Tables S6(c) and S7 show the pre-selected transcripts and all pre-selected SNPs, respectively, while Table 2 summarizes the most significant SNPs with logBF > 4 along with all pre-selected transcripts for each phenotype. All identified transcripts for phenotypic variation in wood density, alpha-cellulose/glucose content, and lignin content were significant in the t-tests (< 0.05) for differential expression (see section above), and were highly ranked with respect to P-values for differential expression. However, for hemicellulose content, we identified an additional transcript not identified as significant for differential expression, and for xylose, we identified four additional transcripts not identified as significant for differential expression (no t-test for xylose was performed individually) (Fig. S1). Using more stringent selection criteria in the t-tests (q-value < 0.1), we identified a set of 23 transcripts that were validated across different pre-selection analyses (Table 3), with POPTR_0006s28070 (unknown protein) validated across all three analyses and associated with lignin, alpha-cellulose, and glucose variation in both t-tests and RF cluster analyses, as well as with lignin and alpha-cellulose in the logBF regression analyses. These individual transcripts identified in our study can potentially be important new candidates for follow-up studies.

Table 2. Most significant single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) variables (logarithm of Bayes factor (logBF) > 4) and transcript expression identified by pre-selection as dependent on phenotype in Populus trichocarpa
TraitTranscriptsa/SNP symbolbGene modelcSNP featureCoding direction (v2.2)Amino acidsCoding effectPOPGENIE BestAraHitPOPGENIE description
  1. ANTH, AP180 N-terminal homology; ATL, Arabidopsis Tóxicos en Levadura; BHLH, basic helix-loop-helix; CDS, coding sequence; ENTH, Epsin N-terminal homology; FtsH, filamentous temperature-sensitive; GCN5, General Control Of Amino-Acid Synthesis, yeast, homolog; Hsf, Heat Stress Transcription Factor; INT, intron; IQ, isoleucine glutamine; LIM: Lin11, Isl-1 and Mec-3; LRR, Leucine-Rich Repeats; na, not applicable; NB-ARC: nucleotide-binding adaptor shared by APAF-1, R proteins, and CED-4; NC, noncoding; non-syn, nonsynonymous; NSF, Soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor; SGT1, Suppressor of G2 (Two) allele of skp1; SNAP, Attachment Protein Receptor; syn, synonymous; TUB, tubulin beta chain; UTR, untranslated region; VHS: Vps27, Hrs and STAM.

  2. a

    Pre-selected transcripts with logBF > 0 according to P. trichocarpa genome version 2.2 annotations where available, in bold.

  3. b

    Pre-selected SNPs with logBF > 4 given as nucleotide position in P. trichocarpa genome version 2.2 scaffolds (

  4. c

    P. trichocarpa genome version 2.2 gene model (

Density fgenesh1_pg.C_scaffold_28000006 nanananananana
Densityscaffold_1_12114727POPTR_0001s15280NCAT1G02130ARABIDOPSIS RAS 5 (ARA-5); GTP binding
Densityscaffold_1_12437833POPTR_0001s15580INT+AT5G47430Zinc ion binding
Densityscaffold_1_12439669POPTR_0001s15580INT+AT5G47430Zinc ion binding
Densityscaffold_1_12442384POPTR_0001s15580INT+AT5G47430Zinc ion binding
Densityscaffold_1_26389194POPTR_0001s27480INTAT3G08580ADP/ATP CARRIER 1 (AAC1); ATP:ADP antiporter/binding
Densityscaffold_1_26390177POPTR_0001s27480INTAT3G08580ADP/ATP CARRIER 1 (AAC1); ATP:ADP antiporter/binding
Densityscaffold_1_47245120POPTR_0001s46870NCAT5G62690TUB2; GTP binding/GTPase/structural molecule
Densityscaffold_2_8015702POPTR_0002s10990INTAT5G26780SERINE HYDROXYMETHYLTRANSFERASE 2 (SHM2)
Densityscaffold_6_9686849POPTR_0006s12530NC+AT5G57620myb domain protein 36 (MYB36); DNA binding/transcription factor
Densityscaffold_7_13868213POPTR_0007s13860INT+AT3G51150Kinesin motor family protein
Densityscaffold_7_13868474POPTR_0007s13860INT+AT3G51150Kinesin motor family protein
Densityscaffold_7_13870208POPTR_0007s13860INT+AT3G51150Kinesin motor family protein
Densityscaffold_8_2306887POPTR_0008s04140CDSN/NSynAT3G07990Serine carboxypeptidase-like 27 (SCPL27)
Densityscaffold_9_6023636POPTR_0009s06150NC+AT5G13780GCN5-related N-acetyltransferase, putative
Densityscaffold_12_1814164POPTR_0012s02170INT+AT3G49220Pectinesterase family protein
Densityscaffold_12_1814218POPTR_0012s02170INT+AT3G49220Pectinesterase family protein
Densityscaffold_13_10511534POPTR_0013s10370NCAT4G24340Phosphorylase family protein
Densityscaffold_18_12087033POPTR_0018s11280INT+AT4G30710Unknown protein
Alpha-cellulose POPTR_0006s28070.1 POPTR_0006s28070nanananaAT4G30630Unknown protein
Alpha-cellulose POPTR_0010s17910.1 POPTR_0010s17910nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Alpha-cellulose POPTR_0015s15300.1 POPTR_0015s15300nanananaAT1G16470Proteasome subunit PAB1
Alpha-cellulose POPTR_0006s16720.1 POPTR_0006s16720nanananaAT4G23160Cysteine-rich RLK (RECEPTOR-like protein kinase) 8
Alpha-cellulose POPTR_0004s07230.1 POPTR_0004s07230nanananaAT4G25700Beta-hydroxylase 1
Alpha-cellulosescaffold_1_15694837POPTR_0001s18640INTAT1G52190Proton-dependent oligopeptide transport (POT) family protein
Alpha-cellulosescaffold_2_358872POPTR_0002s00780NCAT1G76410ATL8; protein binding/zinc ion binding
Alpha-cellulosescaffold_2_1322346POPTR_0002s02340INT+AT1G20010TUB5; structural constituent of cytoskeleton
Alpha-cellulosescaffold_5_23631116POPTR_0005s25350CDS+V/FNon-SynAT1G75430BEL1-LIKE HOMEODOMAIN 11 (BLH11); transcription factor
Alpha-cellulosescaffold_5_23631273POPTR_0005s25350INT+AT1G75430BEL1-LIKE HOMEODOMAIN 11 (BLH11); transcription factor
Alpha-cellulosescaffold_10_12078425POPTR_0010s11950NC+AT1G14890Enzyme inhibitor/pectinesterase/pectinesterase inhibitor
Glucose POPTR_0013s04650.1 POPTR_0013s04650nanananaAT4G13870Werner syndrome-like exonuclease
Glucose eugene3.04220002 nanananananana
Glucose POPTR_0010s17910.1 POPTR_0010s17910nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Glucose POPTR_0015s06200.1 POPTR_0015s06200nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Glucose POPTR_0003s15790.1 POPTR_0003s15790nanananaAT3G16560Protein phosphatase 2C family protein
Glucose POPTR_0271s00210.1 POPTR_0271s00210nanananaAT3G17080Plant self-incompatibility protein S1 family
Glucose POPTR_0004s05440.1 POPTR_0004s05440nanananaAT2G31130Expressed protein
Glucosescaffold_1_31121055POPTR_0001s32810NC+AT4G13980AT-HSFA5; DNA binding/transcription factor
Glucosescaffold_1_44690812POPTR_0001s44250NCAT5G54690GALACTURONOSYLTRANSFERASE 12 (GAUT12)
Glucosescaffold_2_358872POPTR_0002s00780NCAT1G76410ATL8; protein binding/zinc ion binding
Glucosescaffold_5_23732234POPTR_0005s25490NCAT3G54140PEPTIDE TRANSPORTER 1 (PTR1)
Glucosescaffold_6_5969767POPTR_0006s08210INTAT3G53670Unknown protein
Glucosescaffold_10_17837178POPTR_0010s20100INT+AT3G55770LIM domain-containing protein
Hemicellulose POPTR_0008s15860.1 POPTR_0008s15860nanananaAT5G43810Stabilizer of iron transporter SufD/Polynucleotidyl transferase
Hemicellulose POPTR_0018s12580.1 POPTR_0018s12580nanananaAT5G35200ENTH/ANTH/VHS superfamily protein
Hemicellulose POPTR_0004s18330.1 POPTR_0004s18330nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Hemicellulose POPTR_0004s07020.1 POPTR_0004s07020nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Hemicellulose POPTR_0015s10460.1 POPTR_0015s10460nanananaAT5G20090Uncharacterised protein family (UPF0041)
Hemicellulose eugene3.04400002 nanananananana
Hemicellulose POPTR_0001s13400.1 POPTR_0001s13400nanananaAT5G43280delta(3,5),delta(2,4)-dienoyl-CoA isomerase 1
Hemicellulose POPTR_0002s05980.1 POPTR_0002s05980nanananaAT1G06500Unknown protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_1_8215615POPTR_0001s10560INTAT1G64390Arabidopsis thaliana glycosyl hydrolase 9C2 (AtGH9C2)
Hemicellulosescaffold_1_43171555POPTR_0001s430803′-UTR+AT4G20430Subtilase family protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_2_7294482POPTR_0002s101503′-UTR+AT1G72230Plastocyanin-like domain-containing protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_4_5768592POPTR_0004s06940NCAT4G23570SGT1A; protein binding
Hemicellulosescaffold_4_18598531POPTR_0004s18860NC+AT2G17040Arabidopsis NAC domain containing protein 36 (ANAC036); transcription factor
Hemicellulosescaffold_5_4521110POPTR_0005s06740INT+AT2G13440Glucose-inhibited division family A protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_5_8660164POPTR_0005s11880CDSI/ISynAT3G51150Kinesin motor family protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_5_22901037POPTR_0005s24300INTAT3G58170BET1P/SFT1P-LIKE PROTEIN 14A (BS14A); SNAP receptor/protein transporter
Hemicellulosescaffold_13_259799POPTR_0013s00550NCAT3G17390METHIONINE OVER-ACCUMULATOR 3 (MTO3); methionine adenosyltransferase
Hemicellulosescaffold_13_4210414POPTR_0013s05850CDSI/VNon-SynAT5G17920ATMS1; 5-methyltetrahydropteroyltriglutamate-homocysteine S-methyltransferase/methionine synthase
Hemicellulosescaffold_16_5719734POPTR_0016s07890CDS+Q/QSynAT5G22400rac GTPase activating protein, putative
Hemicellulosescaffold_18_3035218POPTR_0018s03450NC+AT4G31550WRKY11; calmodulin binding/transcription factor
Hemicellulosescaffold_18_5353831POPTR_0018s05770NCAT3G24520AT-HSFC1; DNA binding/transcription factor
Hemicellulosescaffold_19_6711559POPTR_0019s06140NC+AT3G45400Exostosin family protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_19_6711617POPTR_0019s06140NC+AT3G45400Exostosin family protein
Hemicellulosescaffold_19_9829010POPTR_0019s08330INT+AT5G17010Sugar transporter family protein
Xylose POPTR_0017s01420.1 POPTR_0017s01420nanananaAT3G14460LRR and NB-ARC domains-containing disease resistance protein
Xylose POPTR_0009s00200.1 POPTR_0009s00200nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Xylose POPTR_0002s22560.1 POPTR_0002s22560nanananaAT2G30950FtsH extracellular protease family
Xylose POPTR_0018s06350.1 POPTR_0018s06350nanananaAT5G19950Domain of unknown function (DUF1767)
Xylose POPTR_0015s15100.1 POPTR_0015s15100nanananaAT4G08850Leucine-rich repeat receptor-like protein kinase family protein
Xylose POPTR_0008s15860.1 POPTR_0008s15860nanananaAT5G43810Stabilizer of iron transporter SufD/polynucleotidyl transferase
Xylose POPTR_0007s02810.1 POPTR_0007s02810nanananaAT4G16740Terpene synthase 03
Xylose POPTR_0004s07020.1 POPTR_0004s07020nanananaNo arabidopsis blast hitna
Xylose POPTR_0018s13150.1 POPTR_0018s13150nanananaAT2G41480Peroxidase superfamily protein
Xylose fgenesh1_pg.C_LG_VII000651 nanananananana
Xylosescaffold_1_43171555POPTR_0001s430803′-UTR+AT4G20430Subtilase family protein
Xylosescaffold_4_18598531POPTR_0004s18860NC+AT2G17040Arabidopsis NAC domain containing protein 36 (anac036); transcription factor
Xylosescaffold_5_4521110POPTR_0005s06740INT+AT2G13440Glucose-inhibited division family A protein
Xylosescaffold_13_4210414POPTR_0013s05850CDSI/VNon-SynAT5G17920ATMS1; 5-methyltetrahydropteroyltriglutamate-homocysteine S-methyltransferase/methionine synthase
Xylosescaffold_19_6711559POPTR_0019s06140NC+AT3G45400Exostosin family protein
Xylosescaffold_19_6711617POPTR_0019s06140NC+AT3G45400Exostosin family protein
Xylosescaffold_19_6945893POPTR_0019s06290NCAT1G08810myb domain protein 60 (MYB60); DNA binding/transcription factor
Lignin POPTR_0015s15300.1 POPTR_0015s15300nanananaAT1G16470Proteasome subunit PAB1
Lignin gw1.IV.50.1 nanananananana
Lignin POPTR_0006s28070.1 POPTR_0006s28070nanananaAT4G30630Unknown protein
Ligninscaffold_1_2936883POPTR_0001s03670NCAT1G15950CINNAMOYL COA REDUCTASE 1 (CCR1)
Ligninscaffold_1_44689823POPTR_0001s44250INTAT5G54690GALACTURONOSYLTRANSFERASE 12 (GAUT12)
Ligninscaffold_2_1322346POPTR_0002s02340INT+AT1G20010TUB5; structural constituent of cytoskeleton
Ligninscaffold_2_10470798POPTR_0002s14120INTAT2G44670Senescence-associated protein-related
Ligninscaffold_3_16181354POPTR_0003s16610INT+AT5G13120Peptidyl-prolyl cis-trans isomerase cyclophilin-type family protein
Ligninscaffold_5_1720220POPTR_0005s02700INTAT3G05420ACYL-COA BINDING PROTEIN 4 (ACBP4)
Ligninscaffold_5_1723773POPTR_0005s02700INTAT3G05420ACYL-COA BINDING PROTEIN 4 (ACBP4)
Ligninscaffold_5_1724721POPTR_0005s02700INTAT3G05420ACYL-COA BINDING PROTEIN 4 (ACBP4)
Ligninscaffold_5_8228988POPTR_0005s11380INT+AT2G17820Histidine kinase 1 (ATHK1)
Ligninscaffold_5_18206992POPTR_0005s193805′-UTR+AT1G10020Unknown protein
Ligninscaffold_5_23631116POPTR_0005s25350CDS+V/FNon-SynAT1G75430BEL1-LIKE HOMEODOMAIN 11 (BLH11); transcription factor
Ligninscaffold_5_23631273POPTR_0005s25350INT+AT1G75430BEL1-LIKE HOMEODOMAIN 11 (BLH11); transcription factor
Ligninscaffold_6_2344494POPTR_0006s03590CDS+H/RNon-SynAT3G56970BHLH038; DNA binding/transcription factor
Ligninscaffold_6_8510688POPTR_0006s11200CDSG/GSynAT3G08640Alphavirus core protein family
Ligninscaffold_8_2306887POPTR_0008s04140CDSN/NSynAT3G07990Serine carboxypeptidase-like 27 (SCPL27)
Ligninscaffold_8_2309317POPTR_0008s04140NCAT3G07990Serine carboxypeptidase-like 27 (SCPL27)
Ligninscaffold_8_2703267POPTR_0008s04700NC+AT3G55070Unknown protein
Ligninscaffold_11_8549487POPTR_0011s07740INTAT2G33990IQ-domain 9 (iqd9); calmodulin binding
Ligninscaffold_13_14861001POPTR_0013s147303′-UTR+AT5G54490PINOID-BINDING PROTEIN 1 (PBP1); calcium ion binding/protein binding
Table 3. List of P. trichocarpa transcripts validated across different pre-selection analyses: t-test with q < 0.1 cut-off; Random Forest (RF); logarithm of Bayes factor (logBF)
Gene/transcriptGene modelPre-selection analysisTraitAt IDAnnotation
  1. ANTH, AP180 N-terminal homology; AP, Apurinic/apyrimidinic; ENTH, Epsin N-terminal homology; LRR, Leucine-Rich Repeats; LTR, Long terminal repeat; na, not applicable; NB-ARC, nucleotide-binding adaptor shared by APAF-1, R proteins, and CED-4; VHS: Vps27, Hrs and STAM.

fgenesh4_pg.C_LG_VI001909POPTR_0006s28070.1t-testLignin, alpha-cellulose, glucoseAT4G30630.1Unknown protein
RFLignin, alpha-cellulose, glucose
logBFLignin, alpha-cellulose
gw1.XVIII.85.1POPTR_0018s12580.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT5G35200.1ENTH/ANTH/VHS superfamily protein
estExt_fgenesh4_pg.C_102780001POPTR_0001s45360.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT1G32900.1UDP-Glycosyltransferase superfamily protein
estExt_fgenesh4_pg.C_LG_X0832POPTR_0010s10140.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT2G09990.140S ribosomal protein S16 (RPS16A)
eugene3.00130933POPTR_0015s02632.1t-testAlpha-celluloseAT5G18880.1Non-LTR retroelement reverse transcriptase related, putative AP endonuclease/reverse transcriptase
eugene3.02080032POPTR_0001s14920.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT3G50160.1Plant protein of unknown function (DUF247)
eugene3.81200001POPTR_0005s02810.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT5G48930.1Hydroxycinnamoyl-CoA shikimate/quinate hydroxycinnamoyl transferase (HCT)
fgenesh4_pg.C_scaffold_7151000001POPTR_0014s04140.1t-testAlpha-celluloseAT4G01070.1UDP-Glycosyltransferase superfamily protein
grail3.0001078401POPTR_0009s07970.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT5G58520.1Protein kinase superfamily protein
gw1.57.289.1POPTR_0005s12750.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT4G36730.2G-box binding factor 1 (GBF1); transcription factor
gw1.I.4726.1POPTR_0001s37450.1t-testLigninAT5G55600.1Agenet domain-containing protein/bromo-adjacent homology (BAH) domain-containing protein
gw1.XVI.2416.1POPTR_0016s07680.1t-testHemicellulose/xyloseAT5G22380.1Arabidopsis NAC domain containing protein 90 (ANAC090); transcription factor
estExt_Genewise1_v1.C_LG_III0064POPTR_0003s15790.1RFGlucoseAT3G16560.1Protein phosphatase 2C-related/PP2C-related
eugene3.02220002POPTR_0015s15100.1RFXyloseAT4G08850.1Leucine-rich repeat family protein/protein kinase family protein
logBFGlucose, alpha-cellulose
fgenesh4_pg.C_scaffold_12767000001POPTR_0009s00200.1RFXylosenamyb family transcription factor
grail3.0005024601POPTR_0015s10460.1RFHemicelluloseAT5G20090.1Uncharacterised protein family (UPF0041)
grail3.0045020801POPTR_0004s18330.1RFXylosenaPutative splicing factor (Arabidopsis thaliana)
gw1.8759.5.1POPTR_0017s01420.1RFXyloseAT3G14460.1LRR and NB-ARC domains-containing disease resistance protein

In general, the identified transcripts (Table 2) were encoded by genes with functions not previously connected to secondary cell wall formation. By contrast, a large number of the identified SNPs are located within genes implicated in wood and secondary cell wall formation (Table S8), which may be a consequence of the bias towards candidate genes in these processes in the design of the genotyping array (Geraldes et al., 2013). In fact, only two of the poplar genes identified through transcriptome analyses (log BF analyses; Table 2) were represented on the 34k SNP genotyping array (Geraldes et al., 2013).

Among the genes with SNPs correlated to strong phenotypic variation we identified (logBF criteria), 95 had been included on the 34k SNP Populus genotyping array based on expression patterns or potential involvement with secondary cell wall formation. The portion of these secondary wall development candidate genes within each set of identified SNPs was on average 33% of the total, but ranged between 30% (glucose content) and 38% (xylose content) for individual traits. A total of 391 SNPs associated with 274 different poplar gene models were identified by pre-selection, and 17% of the pre-selected SNPs were identified for more than one trait. One explanation for this is the high correlation among traits for which we identified individuals at phenotypic extremes. For example, the phenotypic correlation (r) was −0.87 between alpha-cellulose and lignin contents, and almost half of the identified SNPs for alpha-cellulose content were identical to SNPs identified for lignin content. A high percentage of identified SNPs were also identical between hemicellulose content and xylose content traits (c. 40%). This was not unexpected as these traits are related: (glucurono-) xylan is the predominant hemicellulose in poplar wood and the two traits are positively correlated (phenotypic correlation = 0.80). Interestingly, however, fewer SNPs (< 14%) were shared between glucose and alpha-cellulose content traits, although most of the cell wall glucose is derived from alpha-cellulose (phenotypic correlation = 0.82). Other sources of glucose in poplar wood include starch, glucomannan, and xyloglucan.

Directed and phenotype-centric networks for six wood attributes

We next used the pre-selected transcripts and SNPs for integrative network analysis as previously described (Chang & McGeachie, 2011) to identify a set of variables with high predictability for the phenotype. Here, the logBF is evaluated for the whole set of modelled networks. This analysis provided complementary information to the individual variable selection procedure described in the previous section above. This integrative Bayesian network analysis has the potential to uncover SNP–SNP, SNP–transcript, transcript–transcript, phenotype–SNP and phenotype–transcript interactions. Within the biological context, SNP–SNP interactions identify loci at higher linkage disequilibrium, SNP–transcript interactions point to expression QTLs, while transcript–transcript interactions identify a functional relationship. It is the intrinsic property of directionality in Bayesian networks (Friedman et al., 2000) that makes this approach useful for phenotype prediction. Thus, this method connects SNPs with phenotypes on a different basis from that of genetic associations. Here, the phenotype represents the root node of the entire network and all nodes within this network are directly or indirectly connected to the phenotype. This allows the prediction of phenotypic values on the basis of values for all other variables accommodated in the network.

Both pre-selected transcripts and SNPs were used to model the SNP–gene networks as trait-centric networks to identify transcripts and SNPs highly associated with the traits under study and to infer directionality of interactions between the variables (Chang & McGeachie, 2011). First, we tested SNPs with very high statistical support for being individually dependent on the phenotype (logBF > 4). For all six wood attributes for which we had conducted the pre-filtering steps, as described in a previous section, network learning steps were performed. The learned networks incorporated many pre-selected SNPs but, surprisingly, no pre-selected transcripts were accommodated in these networks as being directly or indirectly linked to a studied phenotype. Generally, transcripts were pre-selected at a much lower logBF threshold than SNPs, a phenomenon also reported in the original application of this analysis (Chang & McGeachie, 2011). While the differential gene expression described above may actually contribute to phenotypic variation, the small variation in transcript abundance observed for any of these genes does not seem to be an important predictor for the studied phenotypes, contrary to the allelic variation at SNPs. It was also our goal to identify a minimum set of variables from both transcripts and SNPs (if applicable) to achieve the highest possible predictability for the investigated phenotype.

Next, we tested all transcripts and SNPs (using stringent selection criteria; Table 2) in Bayesian network analysis employing the local propagation algorithm to compute the most probable phenotypic value (Chang & McGeachie, 2011). To identify variables with high statistical support for being correlated with the phenotype or with other variables connected to the phenotype, and to test the robustness of all network models, we conducted leave-one-out cross-validation. This approach and its results are summarized in Table 4. In brief, the approach involved removing one individual at a time from the full sample set, computing the networks and each time predicting the three phenotype classes with certain accuracy. For the final networks we used again all 16 genotypes and tested only those variables that were accommodated persistently in the leave-one-out cross-validation approach. As can be seen in Table 4, this approach greatly reduced over-fitting and improved the overall accuracy in predicting the 16 data points (genotypes). The final networks for all six phenotypes are displayed in Figs 2(a–d) and 3(a,b). In all cases, the variables identified in the networks had direct functional links with the studied phenotypes. Except for the glucose-centric network (Fig. 2a), in each phenotype-centric network at least one SNP (in total 13 different SNPs) derived from a candidate gene placed on the SNP array as being potentially related to secondary cell wall biogenesis (Table S8). Examples of such polymorphisms include: scaffold_2_1322346 within POPTR_0002s02340, homologous to the Arabidopsis structural constituent of the cytoskeleton tubulin beta-5 chain (TUB5) (Fig. 2b) (alpha-cellulose); scaffold_1_2936883 within POPTR_0001s03670, a putative cinnamoyl-CoA reductase (CCR) (Fig. 3a) (lignin); and scaffold_1_12114727 within POPTR_0001s15280, homologous to the Arabidopsis GTP-binding RAS 5 (ARA-5) (Fig. 3b) (wood density). In networks such as those for xylose, hemicelluloses and density (Figs 2c,d, 3b), we identified 67% for both xylose and hemicelluloses, and 60% for density, respectively, of the accommodated SNPs from the group of secondary cell wall candidate genes. In two cases the same SNPs were accommodated in networks for different but highly related traits, that is, xylose and hemicelluloses (Fig. 2c,d). These common variables showed similar logBF values for different related traits (see also Table S7).

Table 4. Cross-validation results for network analysis
TraitInitial assessment using leave-one-out procedureFinal assessment using full sample set and variables with 100% persistency in the initial assessment
No. of genes tested (logBF > 0)No. of genes accomodated in networksNo. of SNPs tested (logBF ≥ 4)No. of SNPs accomodated in networksPredictive accuracy (average) (%)No. of SNPs tested (logBF ≥ 4)No. of SNPs accomodated in networksPredictive accuracy (%)
  1. SNP, single nucleotide polymorphism; logBF, logarithm of Bayes factor.

Figure 2.

Representation of the integrative networks for glucose content, alpha-cellulose content, xylose content, and hemicellulose content in Populus trichocarpa. Directed networks are shown for (a) the monomeric cell wall sugar glucose (GLUC); (b) the polysaccharide alpha-cellulose (ALPHA); (c) the monomeric cell wall sugar xylose (XYL); and (d) the polysaccharide hemicelluloses (HEMI). A K2 algorithm was employed to learn the best network; the maximum number of parents of each node was restricted to be three; blue filled rectangles indicate the respective phenotype under study; the variables important for phenotype prediction are shown within yellow filled rectangles; arrows point from parent to child node; each connector line represents a directed link between a pair of nodes; in red are direct connections between variables and the studied wood trait; orange dashed boxes indicate variables common between xylose (c) and hemicelluloses (d). Genes represented by each single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) variable in the networks are given in Table 2.

Figure 3.

Representation of the integrative networks for lignin content and average wood density in Populus trichocarpa. Directed networks are shown for (a) lignin (LIGNIN) and (b) average wood density (DENS). A K2 algorithm was employed to learn the best network; the maximum number of parents of each node was restricted to be three; blue filled rectangles indicate the respective phenotype under study; the variables important for phenotype prediction are shown within yellow filled rectangles; arrows point from parent to child node; each connector line represents a directed link between a pair of nodes; in red are direct connections between variables and the studied wood trait. Genes represented by each single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) variable in the networks are given in Table 2.

Gene functions of variables associated with notable differences in secondary cell wall traits

A relatively small number of variables pre-selected at a stringent logBF > 4 were sufficient to accurately predict phenotypic subclasses in the studied population (Table 4). Among these were SNPs within genes encoding microtubule-associated proteins and proteins related to cell wall metabolism (polysaccharide synthesis and cell wall reassembly; see also previous section). One SNP within POPTR_0019s06140, annotated as xyloglucan galactosyltransferase (XGT), GT47 gene family, was highly related to variation in relative xylose content (hemicellulose content). Other genes with expression patterns suggesting involvement in secondary cell wall formation were also identified (Table 2). For example, subtilisins are present in vascular bundles and are involved in the modification of cell wall structure and xylem differentiation (Zhao et al., 2005). One SNP located within a gene encoding a subtilase family protein (subtilisin-like serine protease) was identified in our study for relative xylose content (scaffold_1_43171555 within POPTR_0001s43080; Fig. 2c, and Table S8). An SNP within a gene encoding a pectin esterase (for average wood density, scaffold_12_1814218 within POPTR_0012s02170; Fig. 3b) was also identified. Potential roles for pectin esterases in wood density and cell wall thickening have been suggested in Pinus radiata, where allelic variation in such genes is associated with variation in this trait (Li et al., 2012).

Finally, pre-selected variables for variation in relative total lignin content included numerous SNPs within genes encoding proteins required for monolignol biosynthesis. These included poplar genes with homology to Arabidopsis genes encoding prephenate dehydratase and arogenate dehydratase (PD1 and ADT1; shikimate pathway), cinnamoyl CoA reductase (cinnamoyl-CoA reductase 1 (CCR1)) and caffeic acid O-methyltransferase (caffeic acid O-methyltransferase 2 (COMT2); phenylpropanoid pathway), and poplar genes with homology to Arabidopsis genes encoding proteins potentially involved in monolignol polymerization (IRREGULAR XYLEM12 (IRX12) orthologues LACCASE17 (LAC17) and LAC3) as well as potential transcriptional regulators for secondary growth (WRKY35, MYB63 and WRKY70 (Geraldes et al., 2013); Table S8). Interestingly, with the exception of CCR1, none of these genes were required in the SNP–SNP network to accurately predict strong variation in lignin content (Fig. 3a).

Eight polymorphisms identified in our pre-selection panel (Table S7) were also identified in a genome-wide association study for wood chemistry and ultrastructural traits in a P. trichocarpa association population of 334 individuals that included the accessions with extreme phenotypes from the current study (Porth et al., 2013a). The SNP scaffold_2_18793288 within POPTR_0002s22090 which encodes an auxin-responsive family protein was important for explaining variation in both cellulose microfibril angle in the association study (Porth et al., 2013a) and density in this study (Table S8). In addition, the SNP scaffold_14_3194356 within POPTR_0014s04020, annotated as homologous to the ARABIDOPSIS THAUMATIN-LIKE PROTEIN3 (ATLP3) gene, explained variation in related traits (S-lignin in the association study and total lignin in this study) and SNPs within POPTR_0015s05540, homologous to Arabidopsis SUCROSE SYNTHASE6 (SUS6), explained variation for holocellulose in the association study and for glucose content in this study. Importantly, the nonsynonymous SNP scaffold_9_6687336 within POPTR_0009s07050, which encodes a homologue of Arabidopsis MITOGEN-ACTIVATED PROTEIN KINASE 3 (MPK3), was pre-selected for association with glucose content in this study and was associated with the same trait in the association study of Porth et al. (2013a).


Genetic complexity of wood attributes and predictive modelling of phenotype variation

Many attributes related to wood and secondary cell wall chemistry and ultrastructure (e.g. microfibril angle orientation and wood density) are of polygenic genetic architecture in trees (Li et al., 2011, 2012). In this study, we focused on identifying DNA structural variants (SNPs) and transcript levels that may underlie the phenotypic variation in selected wood chemistry traits and wood density that we previously observed (Porth et al., 2013b), using a Bayesian network approach. We generated integrative networks of these variables that are highly predictive of the phenotype subclasses for each of the six industrially important wood traits studied.

The anticipated complexity of the traits we investigated is reflected in highly complex differences in transcript abundance between individuals with contrasting phenotypes. This is evident in the large number of transcripts with relatively small expression changes that characterized the differentially expressed transcriptomes of poplar individuals with substantial differences in wood attributes. The functional annotation of differentially expressed genes showed that such genes were associated with many distinct molecular functions (results not shown). The complexity of polygenic trait architecture highlights the challenges for the genetic improvement of economically important traits in tree breeding strategies. First, this makes it difficult to identify and capture the entire heritable portion of the observed phenotypic variance in such traits using quantitative genetics approaches such as QTL mapping (in pedigrees) or association mapping (in unstructured wild populations). Secondly, establishing individual trees combining all valuable allelic variants through directed breeding is cumbersome, when large numbers of allelic combinations for multiple traits have to be captured. The genome-wide approach of simultaneously fitting unbiased genetic markers to phenotype expression was recently shown to capture the majority of the genetic variation underlying wood traits and to provide relatively high predictive accuracy for such polygenic traits in tree breeding populations (Resende et al., 2012). However, to infer the causal relationships among genes that control the observed gene expression patterns, other approaches have been developed. For example, more recently an integrative network analysis that combines SNP variation and gene expression data was proposed by Chang & McGeachie (2011). In the current study, we used this Bayesian network learning approach which integrates both the genotypic and gene expression data to predict the phenotype under study.

Networks of allelic variants achieve the best predictive accuracy for considerable natural variation in poplar wood traits

A novel aspect of our study is the utilization of natural poplar accessions at the extremes of phenotypic trait values found across a large unstructured population (classified into discrete ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ classes; Porth et al. (2013b), to rigorously screen tens of thousands of molecular variables for their functional association with these attributes. Our goal was to identify a minimal set of variables (representing variation in gene expression and allelic variants) that has the potential of accurately predicting these phenotypic changes and to obtain insight into the hierarchy of the genetic architecture of the studied traits. While logBF pre-selection identified a number of transcripts that were significantly dependent on a given phenotype (Tables 1-3), in the final networks no single transcript was accommodated. Instead, the networks were strongly dependent on SNP variants. These results suggest that the observed phenotype-dependent transcript variation is not essential in the final network topology to achieve 100% predictability of the phenotype. To validate this finding, we tested predictabilities using the Random Forest algorithm optimized for microarray data (Diaz-Uriarte & de Andres, 2006). Although the selected sets of transcripts reflected well results from the t-tests (Fig. S1; Table 3), they provided overall only low predictability for each phenotype, with error rates of 0.415 on average. This general result might be attributable to the existence of numerous transcripts with relatively small effects on natural trait variation, as also shown for other wood traits (Li et al., 2011, 2012), or major effect changes but in different genes may account for the variation. Such inconsistent expression changes would lead to poor predictive ability. The method introduced by Chang & McGeachie (2011) has the potential to identify cis-eQTLs, which represent expression QTLs caused by polymorphisms within the gene queried for expression variation (cf. Porth et al., 2011, 2012). However, the makeup of the 34k SNP array (based on broad-based candidate genes for secondary growth; Geraldes et al., 2013) was such that 5% of its genes were not represented on the Nimblegen array, while 90% of the poplar genes on the gene expression array were not considered for the SNP chip. Still, we had common representation for 3366 gene models to test for cis-eQTLs. However, in order to identify transcripts, expression changes would have to be fixed within genotypes at the tails of the population distribution. Moreover, SNPs within coding regions can affect gene function without any requirement for expression level changes, while expression level changes probably result from SNPs in promoter regions and not in the coding sequence.

A striking result of our study of six different wood attributes was that, in all cases, SNP–SNP combinations assembled the optimal signatures for 100% or close to 100% predictive accuracies (Table 4). In two cases (hemicelluloses and lignin), we showed that networks with fewer variables but with very stringent selection criteria regarding the individual association of variables with phenotypic variation (logBF > 4) were sufficient to accurately predict the different phenotype subclasses (Figs 2d, 3a). In particular, in the cases of relative hemicellulose content, relative total lignin content, and average wood density, we see how variable reduction improves the predictive accuracy. Thus, from these analyses it appears that cross-validation using the leave-one-out approach is indispensible to avoid model over-fitting and achieve the best predictive accuracy for the final network analysis.

Interestingly, the glucose-centric content network (Fig. 2a) revealed an important direct dependence on SNP variants in genes for biomass accumulation involving POPTR_0005s25490, a peptide transporter expressed in the vascular tissue, POPTR_0010s20100, encoding a putative transcription regulator and a homologue of LIM (Lin11, Isl-1 and Mec-3) domain protein 1b from Nicotiana tabacum (NtLIM1), a Pal-box binding protein found in phenylpropanoid genes (Kawaoka et al., 2000), and finally POPTR_0001s32810, a gene homologous to Arabidopsis HEAT SHOCK TRANSCRIPTION FACTOR A5 (HSFA5), a nonconventional heat-shock transcription factor gene that functions as a repressor in the HSFA4/HSFA5 complex and as such may control cell-type-specific apoptosis (Baniwal et al., 2007). All three variants were directly dependent on relative glucose content, implying tight regulation. This highlights the complex interaction between cell wall components and developmental or environmental stimuli in shaping secondary cell wall phenotypes, and is illustrated by these three SNPs. The identified gene hierarchy in this network (Fig. 2a) may also provide indications of why transgenic plants with misregulated genes in a cell wall metabolic pathway often have dramatic perturbations in related metabolic pathways and in overall plant physiology (Coleman et al., 2008; Kitin et al., 2010; Voelker et al., 2011; Vanholme et al., 2012).

In addition, we uncovered important effects for allelic variants within putative poplar TUB and CCR genes (scaffold_2_1322346 and scaffold_1_2936883, respectively) that were important predictors within the relative alpha-cellulose content and relative lignin content trait networks, respectively (Figs 2b, 3a). CCR is an important enzyme in the metabolic pathway leading to monolignol biosynthesis (Vanholme et al., 2012), and the identified CCR is highly similar (> 92% sequence identity) to the poplar CCR that resulted in reduced lignin, reduced hemicellulose, and increased cellulose upon down-regulation (Leple et al., 2007). Certain poplar beta-tubulins (TUBs) are components of microtubules that influence cellulose deposition in secondary walls (Oakley et al., 2007) and also might affect structural cellulosic wood traits such as microfibril angle (Spokevicius et al., 2007). Thus, we confirmed that certain biosynthetic genes and genes encoding proteins for structural properties can affect substantial natural variation in wood traits. We also found evidence for phytohormone signalling of plant growth and development as components in some of the trait networks. For example, within the density network, an SNP in POPTR_0001s15280 (encoding Rab GTPase ARA5) is directly dependent on an SNP within POPTR_0008s04140, annotated as a homologue of the Arabidopsis serine carboxypeptidase BRASSINOSTEROID INSENSITIVE1 SUPRESSOR1 (BRS1) which influences brassinosteroid signalling in Arabidopsis (Li et al., 2001). The poplar homologue of ARA5 is in turn highly co-regulated with secondary cell wall CELLULOSE SYNTHASE A (CESA) genes (Persson et al., 2005).

Finally, a poplar NAM, ATAF1,2, CUC2 (NAC) domain transcription factor homologue of Arabidopsis NAC protein 036 (ANAC036) (POPTR_0004s18860) was found in the xylose-centric network. While the specific function of ANAC036 is unknown, NAC transcription factors such as SECONDARY WALL-ASSOCIATED NAC DOMAIN PROTEIN1 (SND1), VASCULAR-RELATED NAC-DOMAIN7 (VND6) and VND7 play key roles as regulators of secondary wall formation in vessels and fibres (Wang & Dixon, 2012). However, to date no specific regulator of xylan biosynthesis is known and our findings suggest that POPTR_0004s18860 could represent such a candidate in poplar that can be further explored, at the very least to confirm pleiotropic effects for this transcription factor that can impact the amount of xylan in the wood and be of potential use for manipulating xylan levels in woody biomass (Petersen et al., 2012).


Many complex traits, such as secondary cell wall composition, are the products of multiple highly (positively and/or negatively) correlated and interacting traits. QTL mapping and association mapping studies have provided insight into the genetic architecture of quantitative traits by bridging the gap between phenotypic and genotypic variances. Often, the reported significant associations attributable to each SNP show a small amount (0.1–5%) of the total variance and the effects of QTL are highly dependent on the genetic background in the studied population (Mackay et al., 2009). While large-effect QTLs are found in populations based on crosses of highly divergent parents, small-effect QTLs are reported in populations with large sample sizes. Also, interaction networks are not persistent and may change as breeding advances, especially in forest trees as a consequence of their long-term exposure to large environmental contingencies that can drastically change the realized QTL effects. This manifests in reduced accuracy of genomic selection (Resende et al., 2012). Therefore, the effect of each SNP is not a straightforward criterion according to observed association with the trait under study, especially in a significant context-dependent scenario (Mackay et al., 2009). Genetic network analysis is expected to unravel and detect hierarchies in gene action leading to the discovery of the most important genes affecting the trait in question. The network approach may facilitate the selection of highly important genes and gene variants involved in controlling a specific trait in the complexity of these interacting traits (Porth et al., 2013b). Focus on such gene variants in cell wall traits could simplify breeding activities, as much of the attention would be focused on genotype–phenotype associations across all studied traits that are most likely to result in appreciable improvement by supporting the maximization of response to selection.


We acknowledge C. Hefer, UBC, Canada, for updating Nimblegen array annotation to v2 poplar gene models, and A. Haegert at Jack Bell Research Centre, Prostate Centre, Vancouver, BC, Canada for microarray hybridizations and basic bioinformatics analysis. We further thank Drs H. H. Chang and M. McGeachie, Harvard Medical School, MA, USA for Matlab scripts. This work was supported by the Genome British Columbia Applied Genomics Innovation programme (Project 103BIO) and the Genome Canada Large-Scale Applied Research Project programme (Project 168BIO).