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Analysis of transcriptional and epigenetic changes in hybrid vigor of allopolyploid Brassica napus uncovers key roles for small RNAs



Heterosis is a fundamental biological phenomenon characterized by the superior performance of a hybrid compared with its parents. The underlying molecular basis for heterosis, particularly for allopolyploids, remains elusive. In this study we analyzed the transcriptomes of Brassica napus parental lines and their F1 hybrids at three stages of early flower development. Phenotypically, the F1 hybrids show remarkable heterosis in silique number and grain yield. Transcriptome analysis revealed that various phytohormone (auxin and salicylic acid) response genes are significantly altered in the F1 hybrids relative to the parental lines. We also found evidence for decreased expression divergence of the homoeologous gene pairs in the allopolyploid F1 hybrids and suggest that high-parental expression-level dominance plays an important role in heterosis. Small RNA and methylation studies aimed at examining the epigenetic effect of the changes in gene expression level in the F1 hybrids showed that the majority of the small interfering RNA (siRNA) clusters had a higher expression level in the F1 hybrids than in the parents, and that there was an increase in genome-wide DNA methylation in the F1 hybrid. Transposable elements associated with siRNA clusters had a higher level of methylation and a lower expression level in the F1 hybrid, implying that the non-additively expressed siRNA clusters resulted in lower activity of the transposable elements through DNA methylation in the hybrid. Our data provide insights into the role that changes in gene expression pattern and epigenetic mechanisms contribute to heterosis during early flower development in allopolyploid B. napus.