Epigenetic Responses of Arabidopsis to Abiotic Stress

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Virginia Tech


Weed resistance to control measures, particularly herbicides, is a growing problem in agriculture. In the case of herbicides, resistance is sometimes connected to genetic changes that directly affect the target site of the herbicide. Other cases are less straightforward where resistance arises without such a clear-cut mechanism. Understanding the genetic and gene regulatory mechanisms that may lead to the rapid evolution of resistance in weedy species is critical to securing our food supply. To study this phenomenon, we exposed young Arabidopsis plants to sublethal levels of one of four weed management stressors, glyphosate herbicide, trifloxysulfuron herbicide, mechanical clipping, and shading. To evaluate responses to these stressors we collected data on gene expression and regulation via epigenetic modification (methylation) and small RNA (sRNA). For all of the treatments except shade, the stress was limited in duration, and the plants were allowed to recover until flowering, to identify changes that persist to reproduction. At flowering, DNA for methylation bisulfite sequencing, RNA, and sRNA were extracted from newly formed rosette leaf tissue. Analyzing the individual datasets revealed many differential responses when compared to the untreated control for gene expression, methylation, and sRNA expression. All three measures showed increases in differential abundance that were unique to each stressor, with very little overlap between stressors. Herbicide treatments tended to exhibit the largest number of significant differential responses, with glyphosate treatment most often associated with the greatest differences and contributing to overlap. To evaluate how large datasets from methylation, gene expression, and sRNA analyses could be connected and mined to link regulatory information with changes in gene expression, the information from each dataset and for each gene was united in a single large matrix and mined with classification algorithms. Although our models were able to differentiate patterns in a set of simulated data, the raw datasets were too noisy for the models to consistently identify differentially expressed genes. However, by focusing on responses at a local level, we identified several genes with differential expression, differential sRNA, and differential methylation. While further studies will be needed to determine whether these epigenetic changes truly influence gene expression at these sites, the changes detected at the treatment level could prime the plants for future incidents of stress, including herbicides.



epigenetics, weeds, bioinformatics, RNA Seq, differential expression analysis, whole genome bisulfite sequencing, data mining, k-means clustering, decision tree, random forest, multi-'omics