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Genetics and Molecular Biology

Print version ISSN 1415-4757On-line version ISSN 1678-4685

Genet. Mol. Biol. vol.30 no.3 suppl.0 São Paulo  2007 



Towards the identification of flower-specific genes in Citrus spp



Marcelo Carnier DornelasI; Raquel Luciana Boscariol CamargoII; Irving Joseph BergerII; Marco Aurélio TakitaII

IDepartamento de Fisiologia Vegetal, Instituto de Biologia, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, SP, Brazil
IICentro APTA Citrus Sylvio Moreira, Instituto Agronômico de Campinas, Cordeirópolis, SP, Brazil

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Citrus sinensis is a perennial woody species, for which genetic approaches to the study of reproductive development are not readily amenable. Here, the usefulness of the CitEST Expressed Sequence Tag (EST) database is demonstrated as a reliable new resource for identifying novel genes exclusively related to Citrus reproductive biology. We performed the analysis of an EST dataset of the CitEST Project containing 4,330 flower-derived cDNA sequences. Relying on bioinformatics tools, sequences exclusively present in this flower-derived sequence collection were selected and used for the identification of Citrus putative flower-specific genes. Our analysis revealed several Citrus sequences showing significant similarity to conserved genes known to have flower-specific expression and possessing functions related to flower metabolism and/or reproductive development in diverse plant species. Comparison of the Citrus flower-specific sequences with all available plant peptide sequences unraveled 247 unique transcripts not identified elsewhere within the plant kingdom. Additionally, 49 transcripts, for which no biological function could be attributed by means of sequence comparisons, were found to be conserved among plant species. These results allow further gene expression analysis and possibly novel approaches to the understanding of reproductive development in Citrus.

Key words: development, flower-specific genes, reproduction, transcription factors.




Understanding flowering and reproduction of perennial plant species is not only a fundamental concern of plant biology but is also of practical interest in agriculture. The identification of genes involved in flowering and reproduction of perennial plants could greatly contribute to improvements in breeding and in establishing alternative techniques to obtain interesting agronomic traits. Nevertheless, our current knowledge of molecular pathways controlling flower development comes mostly from studies of the herbaceous model plant Arabidopsis thaliana reviewed by Komeda (2004) and Kramer and Hall (2005). In recent years, gene expression analysis using genomic tools has become a powerful resource for the unraveling of flowering-related genes in other non-model plant species (Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2001; Izawa et al., 2003; Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2004; 2005; Hecht et al., 2005; Laitinen et al., 2005; Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2006; Dornelas et al., 2006).

Sequencing of cDNA stretches to generate expressed sequence tags (ESTs) have proven to be a powerful, economical and rapid approach to identify genes that are preferentially expressed in certain tissue or cell types of multicellular organisms (Adams et al., 1992; McCombe et al., 1992; Newman et al., 1994). When ESTs are generated from non-normalized cDNA libraries, gene expression patterns can be inferred from the relative abundance of these tags among different libraries (Ewing et al., 1998). The availability of a significant EST database from a certain plant species offers the possibility of studying gene expression for different tissues and organs. This approach, associated with microarray techniques, has implicated 724 genes in Arabidopsis floral development (Hu et al. 2003). A genome-wide microarray study of the Arabidopsis male gametophytic transcriptome identified 992 pollen-specific transcripts (Honys and Twell, 2003). Similarly, with the use of both cDNA and oligonucleotide arrays on the Arabidopsis floral homeotic mutants apetata1, apetala2, apetala3, pistillata and agamous, 1,453 genes were identified to be specifically or at least predominantly expressed in one type of floral organ (Wellmer et al., 2004).

Recently, the use of a genomic approach, based on in silico EST sequence analysis, has been used to identify flower-specific genes in diverse non-model plant species (Figueiredo et al., 2001; Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2004; Forment et al., 2005; Hecht et al., 2005; Laitinen et al., 2005; Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2006; Dornelas et al., 2006). Here we report on the screening of the CitEST Expressed Sequence Tag (EST) database for identifying novel genes exclusively related to sweet orange (Citrus sinensis L. Osbeck) reproductive biology. As Citrus species are generally perennial woody plants, for which genetic approaches to the study of reproductive development are not readily amenable, we believe the results presented here will allow novel approaches to the understanding of reproductive development in Citrus.


Material and Methods

Expressed Sequence Tags (ESTs) were generated by the CitEST Project from diverse Citrus species and different tissues. Nevertheless, a single flower-derived library was produced, containing cDNAs from mature flowers and flower buds at different developmental stages, of sweet orange (Citrus sinensis, var. Pêra IAC). Information concerning the construction of libraries, sequencing, sequence clustering and nomenclature can be found in other papers of this journal issue. In this paper, we have adopted as a cluster name the first sequence that was picked to form such a cluster.

The identification of flower-specific sequence clusters was based upon the rule that each cluster must contain only reads derived from the cDNA library made with floral tissues (library CS00-C5-003). For this purpose, custom-made scripts in Perl programming language were used to query the CitEST database. These scripts were designed to cluster all reads of the database and identify the tissue origin (library) of the reads inside each cluster. If a cluster was entirely formed by reads from the flower library, it was selected. Additionally, all singletons from the flower library (isolated sequences that did not form clusters with any other sequence) were also selected.

The putative identity of each Citrus flower-specific cluster/singleton was established by performing BLAST (Altschul et al., 1997) searches against the GenBank databases (Benson et al., 2000). A putative Arabidopsis ortholog was attributed to each Citrus flower-specific cluster/singleton, by querying the Arabidopsis Genome Initiative dataset using the TAIR BLAST 2.2.8 algorithm, considering e-values better than e-10. Alternatively, the Plant Genome Database (Dong et al., 2005) and the TIGR Plant Gene Indices (Quackenbush et al., 2000) were also searched for the identification of putative homologs of the Citrus flower-specific sequences in other plants. Additionally, sequences were functionally characterized according to the MIPS Funcat (Mewes et al., 2004). The ten most expressed sequences (i.e. the clusters composed by the largest number of reads) classified as "unknown function" were further investigated for the presence of conserved motifs by querying the Pfam database (Bateman et al., 2004). A double in silico hybridization strategy, combining the likelihood algorithm (R-statistics) proposed by Stekel et al., (2000) to compare multiple libraries at once and the P-statistics described by Audic and Claverie (1997), was used to identify differentially expressed clusters among Citrus tissues. All statistically significant flower-specific clusters from the R-statistics were concluded as upregulated, flower-specific expressed sequences. Additional and simultaneous 2x2 P-statistics significance of those flower-specific clusters in contrast to the leaf and fruit datasets was interpreted as a strong suggestion of tissue specificity.



Identifying Citrus flower-specific sequences

A single cDNA library derived from flower tissues was sequenced within the frame of the CitEST Project. A total of 4,330 valid EST sequences were produced from this library, which represents 2.5% of the total number of valid sequences produced. After assembly and selection of the clusters containing only flower-derived transcripts and/or single flower-derived sequences that did not form clusters, 1,012 putative flower-specific sequences were found. These represent 23% of the number of flower-derived sequences and only 0.5% of the total number of ESTs in the CitEST database. These putative flower-specific sequences could be organized in 133 clusters (31% of the ESTs) and 696 singletons. Of the putative flower-specific clusters, 97% contained two or three ESTs indicating that the library is extremely non-redundant and that more flower-specific sequences might be obtained with further sequencing of other cDNA clones derived from this library.

Functional annotation of Citrus putative flower-specific sequences

Analysis of the putative flower-specific sequences and their derived peptide sequences allowed a tentative annotation of their biological functions to be performed (Table 1). Functional assignments were calculated from BLASTX, performed for the functionally annotated proteins from the Arabidopsis genome (the MIPS Funcat). In total, 23.6% of the Citrus putative flower-specific sequences were homologous to Arabidopsis proteins of known function, with another 15.3% similar to Arabidopsis proteins of unknown or unclear function. The remaining 43.9% of Citrus putative flower-specific sequences without a BLAST match above the threshold were designated as "unknowns". Nevertheless, comparisons of the Citrus sequences to more broad databases, such as GenBank and/or other plant genome/EST sequence collections, such as the TIGR Plant Gene Indices (Quackenbush et al., 2000), allowed further identification and annotation of the Citrus putative flower-specific transcripts (Table 2).





Comparison of Citrus putative flower-specific sequences with other plant genomes and EST databases

The Citrus putative flower-specific sequence collection was placed in comparative context with other plant species. As references, the annotated Arabidopsis and rice protein collections were included along with the draft Populus trichocarpa genome and all available Medicago truncatula BAC sequences. To identify putatively lineage-specific sequences, TIGR Plant Gene Indices (Quackenbush et al., 2000) clustered EST collections were pooled to form Eurosid, Asterid, and monocot collections. While 58.9% of Citrus putative flower-specific sequences have a counterpart in the annotated Arabidopsis proteome (since the Arabidopsis GenBank database is more redundant than MIPS), only 18% of sequences have a match within the rice genome (Table 2). When the comparison is restricted to Populus, 47.3% of the Citrus sequences have a match (Table 2). Of the 1,012 Citrus putative flower-specific sequences, 247 sequences (24%) do not have a match to a known sequence. Of these, 3% can be excluded as short sequences or sequences likely to represent untranslated regions (UTRs, with less than 10% of coding potential). This results in 163 (16%) Citrus putative flower-specific sequences not observed elsewhere within the plant kingdom. Nevertheless, we cannot discard the possibility that some of these sequences may be artifacts or products of contamination, thus further expression pattern analysis (e.g., by in situ hybridization experiments) is needed to confirm this observation.

Identification of upregulated sequences as candidates to the most probable flower-specific genes

When sequences are generated from non-normalized cDNA libraries, the relative abundance of ESTs reflects the gene expression patterns in terms of up- and downregulated genes (Ewing et al., 1998). As the library of flower tissues made by the CitEST Project is non-normalized, we applied statistical algorithms to predict upregulated, thus statistically supported, stronger candidates to flower-specific genes in Citrus flower tissues.

In silico hybridization of all CitEST-derived clusters of C. sinensis flower, leaf and fruit ESTs have pointed to all 133 exclusive flower clusters being statistically supported upregulated genes in that tissue (R-value > 5.0, data distribution not shown; Stekel et al., 2000). Additional and simultaneous significance of upregulated flower clusters, in comparison to the other tissues resulting from 2x2 in silico hybridizations (P-value < 0.05; Audic and Claverie, 1997), was interpreted as a strong suggestion of tissue specificity. Only ten clusters from the first hybridization were found to fit that second condition (it includes only clusters with 4 or more ESTs). Corresponding to the ten most abundant expressed sequences in the tissue, they are hereinafter considered the most probable candidates to flower-specific genes in Citrus.

Characterization of genes upregulated during Citrus flower development

Indeed, most of the genes represented by the ten most abundant Citrus putative flower-specific ESTs encode proteins related to the biosynthesis of flower-specific products found in other species (Table 3). Seven out of the ten most expressed Citrus flower-specific genes could have a putative function attributed to them, based on sequence comparisons with proteins for which a function was previously attributed experimentally in model plants.



The most abundant Citrus flower-specific transcript, CS00-C5-003-027-G10-CT, is a putative homolog to the Arabidopsis flower-specifc AtMYB21 (Table 3), which encodes a transcription factor belonging to the large MYB family (Shin et al., 2002). Transgenic Arabidopsis plants overexpressing AtMYB21 have shorter stems, narrower petals and malformed carpels (Shin et al., 2002). This gene is conserved in other plant species such as Gerbera and Pisum and always shows a flower-specific pattern of expression (Uimari and Strommer, 1997; Elomaa et al., 2003), and is involved in the biosynthesis of phenylpropanoids, including anthocyanin (Elomaa et al., 2003) and other phlobaphene pigments (Uimari and Strommer, 1997). In accordance with this biological role, the expression of AtMYB21 is regulated by light-signaling components such as COP1 and is ectopically expressed in cop1 mutants (Shin et al., 2002).

CYP79A2, a member of the Arabidopsis cytochome P450 family, is the most probable homolog to the CS00-C5-003-015-F09 cluster (Table 3), the second most expressed Citrus putative flower-specific transcript. It is expressed preferentially in carpels and is involved in converting L-phenylalanine to phenylacetaldoxime, and is probably related to hormone homeostasis, as knock-out mutants show increased levels of cytokinins and over-proliferation of carpels (Wittstock and Halkier, 2000; Tantikanjana et al., 2004).

Three out of the ten most abundant Citrus putative flower-specific transcripts encode methyltransferases (Table 3). The analysis of expression patterns coupled with biochemical characterization showed that these carboxyl methyltransferases are involved either in floral scent biosynthesis or in plant defense responses (Effmert et al., 2005). Clusters CS00-C5-003-026-G09-CT and CS00-C5-003-009-A05-CT encode putative benzenoid carboxyl methyltransferases which synthesize methyl esters, the constituents of aromas and scents of many plant species. The top ten BLAST hits for these clusters are S-adenosyl-1-methionine:benzoic acid carboxyl methyltransferases expressed exclusively in petals and are key regulators of flower scent production in roses, petunia, snapdragon, Clarkia and Stephanotis (Dudareva et al., 2000; Lavid et al., 2002; Effmert et al., 2005; Scalliet et al., 2006). On the other hand, CS00-C5-003-051-F10-CT encodes a putative 7-methylxanthine methyltransferase, similar to one of the caffeine-synthases which are specifically expressed in young floral buds, flowers and fruits, specially in the endosperm tissue (Mizuno et al., 2003).

The other three out of the ten most abundant Citrus putative flower-specific transcripts encode proteins whose functions remain unknown, even if their sequences are conserved among different plant species (CS00-C5-003-028-B11-CT and CS00-C5-003-038-A01-CT; Table 3) or the querying of their sequences in the databases produced non-significative hits (CS00-C5-003-030-D01-CT; Table 3). Although their biological roles remain unknown, putative homologs to clusters CS00-C5-003-028-B11-CT and CS00-C5-003-038-A01-CT could be found within the Arabidopsis proteome and they encode a START-related membrane protein and a glycine-rich cell wall protein, respectively. START (STeroidogenic Acute Regulatory-related lipid Transfer) proteins are generally involved in the transport of phosphatidylcholine-derivatives and may be implicated in signal transduction (Bateman et al., 2004). Phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine and phosphatidic acid are major components of the polar lipid fraction of pollen grains (Caffrey et al., 1987). On the other hand, glycine-rich proteins are among the most expressed anther-specific genes of Arabidopsis (Rubinelli et al., 1998; Oliveira et al., 1993) and have been involved in stamen development in lily, where they are expressed exclusively in anther tissues (Mousavi et al., 1999).

Two other putative stamen- or anther-specific contigs were found among the most abundant Citrus flower-specific ESTs: CS00-C5-003-016-D04-CT and CS00-C5-003-049-D12-CT. In situ hybridization studies have demonstrated that FIL1, a protease inhibitor/lipid-transfer protein which is the Antirrhinum putative homolog to CS00-C5-003-016-D04-CT, is expressed exclusively in stamens and petals (Nacken et al., 1991). Likewise, ATA7, the putative homolog of this same gene in Arabidopsis, is tapetum-specific (Rubinelli et al., 1998). On the other hand, CS00-C5-003-049-D12-CT encodes a putative nucleotide sugar epimerase (UDP-glucuronic acid decarboxylase). A homolog to this protein has been implicated in stamen development in cucumber and is strongly expressed in bisexual and male cucumber flowers, but its transcripts are absent from female flowers and vegetative tissues (Terefe and Tatlioglu, 2005).

Typically, the cDNAs encoding transcription factors upregulated in flowers are MADS-box genes, which are known regulators of flower-organ development (see review by Irish and Litt, 2005). Accordingly, we have found among the Citrus flower-specific transcripts (namely CS00-C5-003-003-A04-CT), a putative homolog to the APETALA1 gene (with an e-value of 4e-78), which encodes a flower-specific MADS-box transcription factor, responsible for the determination of sepal and petal identities (Mandel et al., 1992). Additionally, a Citrus putative homolog to a SHAGGY-like kinase ASK (Dornelas et al., 1998; 2000), which is exclusively expressed in pollen and ovules (Dornelas et al., 2000; Wellmer et al., 2004), was also found among the flower-specific transcripts (i.e. CS00-C5-003-063-B12-CT, e-value of 2e-82).



The accumulation of sequence data from taxonomically diverse species evidently benefits the functional analysis of the corresponding genes in all experimental systems, as well as the understanding of plant evolution both from a phylogenetic and a mechanistic perspective (Cronk, 2001; Albert et al., 2002; Frohlich, 2003). Our previous work demonstrates that sequence comparisons, in combination with phylogenetic analyses, reveal functionally related gene groups, but also produce predictions for gene duplication and functional diversification during the evolution of plant reproductive development (Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2001; 2004; 2005; 2006; Dornelas et al., 2006). Comparison of the Citrus EST data with the available plant genomes and pooled EST collections, representing evolutionary distinct lineages within the plant kingdom, nicely demonstrates the high potential for the discovery of novel genes. As the genus Citrus belongs to the core Eucotyledons, specifically to the Eurosids clade, it was expected that comparisons of the Citrus ESTs to those of other Eurosids would produce a greater degree of similarity (thus a greater chance of finding putative homologs) than in comparison to those of Asterids or even to those of Monocotiledonous plants. It was also striking that the degree of similarity found among Citrus flower-derived sequences and those of other woody species, such as those from Populus (Table 2) or those of apple and peach (data not shown), was frequently greater than when comparing Citrus sequences with other herbaceous plants. This could indicate that reproductive development of woody perennials would share, at least to some extent, particular motifs not found among herbaceous-derived proteins. This observation has also been reported for other woody species such as Eucalyptus (Dornelas and Rodriguez, 2005) and apple (Newcomb et al., 2006).

Among the Citrus putative flower-specific transcripts, we found several clusters showing significant sequence similarity with known floral organ-specific genes, which encode proteins that control flower development and metabolism in a number of species. These results indicate that the selection criteria applied here were suitable for the identification of flower-expressed transcripts. Future analysis of the expression patterns of these previously uncharacterized genes by techniques such as in situ hybridization might bring further support to this conclusion. Additionally, it would be of great interest to validate and correlate the double in silico hybridization strategy herein adopted with ex-silico expression patterns. Strict correlation would suggest an efficient in silico approach for allowing tissue-specific gene discovery and for directing validation experiments to more limited and probable positive targets. This has been accomplished recently for genes expressed during Arabidopsis early seed development (Becerra et al., 2006).

Many of the Citrus transcripts upregulated in floral tissues encode proteins involved in specific steps of flower metabolism and only a few were putatively involved in early steps of floral evocation or flower meristem differentiation. This bias towards late-expressing genes can be explained by the fact that the RNA preparations used for the cDNA library construction were, because of the differences in size of young and old floral buds, strongly enriched for RNA from older buds. Therefore, genes that are expressed during early stages of flower development might have been too diluted in the RNA samples, and thus are underrepresented in the CitEST database.

The majority of the genes that were predicted to be floral organ-specific were assigned to the stamen, whereas only very few were assigned to the organs of the perianth. This difference in number is likely because of key developmental events, such as the formation of pollen and ovules that occur during late stages of flower development in the reproductive organs. In addition, the reproductive organs contain many different tissues and cell types, whereas the anatomy of sepals and petals appears to be less complex (Wellmer et al., 2004). Thus, the observation that the number of genes expressed in stamens is generally greater than the number of genes expressed in other floral organs has also been reported for Arabidopsis (Wellmer et al., 2004) and Gerbera (Laitinen et al., 2005).

We have also identified a large number of genes that are specifically expressed or predominantly abundant in Citrus floral tissues which have not yet been characterized in detail, even in model plants such as Arabidopsis. Nevertheless, in Arabidopsis, the targeted inactivation of genes has become a very powerful approach for functional analysis. RNA interference can be used to induce loss-of-function phenotypes (Chuang and Meyerowitz, 2000), and T-DNA insertion lines are available for many genes (Alonso et al., 2003). Thus, the function of the putative flower-specific genes identified in Citrus can now be systematically studied by reverse genetics in heterologous model systems such as Arabidopsis. On the other hand, more than 200 Citrus putative flower-specific transcripts showed no significant homology to any other plant transcript, which strongly suggests putative functions for them in aspects of flower organ development and/or metabolism that are particular to Citrus species. Thus, these sequences could encode putative novel regulators of flower development and metabolism, yet to be described.

Based on the observations above, we conclude that we have successfully uncovered Citrus transcripts that are putatively flower-specific. Our results also indicate that spatially limited expression of several genes may be part of Citrus flower development and metabolism, as has been demonstrated for model plants (Wellmer et al., 2004). Our data additionally provide a rich source of target genes for reverse genetics approaches and candidates for flower-specific markers.



We would like to thank Marcos Machado for coordinating our efforts on the analysis of the data generated by the CitEST Project, Kleber M. Borges and Juliana M. de Souza for sequencing skills, A Alessandra Alves de Souza for the Citrus flower cDNA library and CNPq and FAPESP (Brazil) for financial support.



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Internet Resources

CitEST Database, (March 25, 2006)        [ Links ]

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Send correspondence to:
Marcelo C. Dornelas
Departamento de Fisiologia Vegetal, Instituto de Biologia
Universidade Estadual de Campinas
Caixa Postal 6109
13083-970 Campinas, SP, Brazil

Received: July 21, 2006; Accepted: February 2, 2007.



Associate Editor: Alessandra Alves de Souza

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