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Genetics and Molecular Biology

Print version ISSN 1415-4757

Genet. Mol. Biol. vol.33 no.2 São Paulo  2010  Epub Apr 30, 2010 



A genomic analysis of disease-resistance genes encoding nucleotide binding sites in Sorghum bicolor



Xiao Cheng; Haiyang Jiang; Yang Zhao; Yexiong Qian; Suwen Zhu; Beijiu Cheng

School of Life Science, Anhui Agricultural University, Hefei, Anhui, China

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A large set of candidate nucleotide-binding site (NBS)-encoding genes related to disease resistance was identified in the sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) genome. These resistance (R) genes were characterized based on their structural diversity, physical chromosomal location and phylogenetic relationships. Based on their N-terminal motifs and leucine-rich repeats (LRR), 50 non-regular NBS genes and 224 regular NBS genes were identified in 274 candidate NBS genes. The regular NBS genes were classified into ten types: CNL, CN, CNLX, CNX, CNXL, CXN, NX, N, NL and NLX. The vast majority (97%) of NBS genes occurred in gene clusters, indicating extensive gene duplication in the evolution of S. bicolor NBS genes. Analysis of the S. bicolor NBS phylogenetic tree revealed two major clades. Most NBS genes were located at the distal tip of the long arms of the ten sorghum chromosomes, a pattern significantly different from rice and Arabidopsis, the NBS genes of which have a random chromosomal distribution.

Key words: bioinformatics, disease resistance gene, nucleotide binding site, Sorghum bicolor.




Most higher plants are susceptible to infection by a variety of pathogens. A common mechanism of defense against pathogens involves a "hypersensitive response" that results in apoptosis or natural cell death of infected cells, a process in which resistance or R genes play an important role (Dhalowal and Uchimiya, 1999). Resistance genes encode proteins involved in plant resistance to a variety of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, oomycetes, nematodes and insects. The best characterized R genes encode products that contain a nucleotide-binding site (NBS) and a series of leucine-rich repeats (LRR) (Lupas et al., 1991). The NBS sequences have been extensively used to identify and classify plant R genes based on their content of conserved motifs. The NBS-LRR genes are the most common type of R genes that have been sequenced and disease resistance is the only function that has been ascribed to them. Meyers et al. (1999) divided the NBS-LRR genes into two sub-types based on the N-terminal structure of the encoded proteins, i.e., those with an N-terminal region homologous to the Toll/interleukin-1 receptor (TIR) and those with no such homologous region (so-called non-TIR NBS-LRR or non-TNL genes). Non-TNL genes are of two types: those with a coiled-coil (CC) domain in the N-terminal region (that is shorter than in CNL genes), referred to as CC-NBS-LRR, and those with an unknown structure (X) in the N-terminus (XNL), referred to as X-NBS-LRR.

According to the specific gene-for-gene hypothesis proposed by Flor (1971), interaction between the host plant and its pathogens involves avirulence genes that encode a product recognized by a specific R gene of the host plant; virulence thus represents a loss-of-function in the pathogen and a failure to trigger the defense response that in turn facilitates the occurrence of disease. If an R gene recognizes the avr gene product of the pathogen then a signal transduction cascade that leads to differential gene expression and disease resistance is activated. A proper understanding of the host plant-pathogen relationship and determination of the structure, function and mechanism of R genes are important areas of research in phytopathology and plant disease resistance (Baker et al., 1997).

The genome sequence of Sorghum bicolor has been reported (Paterson et al., 2009). In this work, we used this database to investigate the diversity of S. bicolor R genes and assess their importance in the mechanisms of disease resistance. In the future, the cloning of R genes (The Arabidopsis Genome Initiative 2000; Venter et al., 2001; Goff et al., 2002; Yu et al., 2005) should help to accelerate the breeding of disease-resistant S. bicolor.



The Sorghum bicolor genome

The complete genome sequence of S. bicolor was downloaded from the phytozome database.

Identification of NBS-encoding genes

By using keywords such as "NBS" and "resistance" to search 117 gene groups in GenBank we identified 143 genes with a cereal NBS motif. This NBS domain nucleotide sequence was then used as a query in BLASTN searches for possible homologs encoded in the S. bicolor genome. The threshold expectation value was set to 10-3, a value determined empirically to filter out most of the spurious hits. This step was crucial in identifying the maximum number of candidate genes. The nucleotide sequences of candidate NBS genes were used as queries to find homologs in the S. bicolor genome by BLAST searches (p value = 0.001). All of the sequences that met the requirements were analyzed by using the Pfam (Protein family) database in order to remove genes that did not contain NBS gene sequences. Each of the candidate sequences was checked manually by using available annotations in GenBank to confirm that they encoded the corresponding NBS candidate proteins. The sequences were then aligned with ClustalW using MEGA 3.1 software (Kumar et al., 2004) and identical sequences located in longer sequences or genes were eliminated.

Classification of NBS genes

The NBS amino acid sequences derived from the standard NBS gene region of the Pfam database by using the hidden Markov model (HMM), starting from a pre-P-Loop structure to the end of the MHDV motif, generally contained 260-300 amino acids. (The four amino acid sequence MHDV is a key feature of most NBS-LRR proteins; Meyers et al., 2003). The N-terminus precedes the pre-P-Loop structure and the LRR region follows the MHDV motif. All of the corresponding NBS candidate proteins were surveyed to determine whether they encoded TIR, CC, NBS or LRR motifs. This survey was based on the Pfam database ( and used SMART (Simple Modular Architecture Research Tool) protein motif analysis (Schultz et al., 1998) and COILS, a program to detect coiled coil (CC) domains (Lupas et al., 1991) and used with a threshold = 0.9).

Physical location of NBS genes on sorghum chromosomes

The software DNATOOLS was used to construct local databases with the complete S. bicolor nucleotide sequence and the starting positions of all NBS genes on each chromosome were obtained using tBLASTn (p value = .001). This method was used to confirm the physical locations of all NBS genes. Finally, a chromosomal map showing the physical location of all regular NBS resistance genes was generated with Genome Pixelizer software.

Sequence alignment and phylogenetic analysis

Multiple alignments of amino acid sequences were done with the NBS region based on the Pfam results. Phylogenetic trees were constructed using MEGA 3.1 based on the bootstrap neighbor-joining (NJ) method (bootstrap = 1000) with a Kimura 2-parameter model; these trees were subsequently used to analyze the evolutionary relationships among sorghum NBS disease-resistant genes.



Identification and classification of NBS genes

Two hundred and eighty-three prospective R genes were identified in the S. bicolor genome, nine of which were subsequently found not to be NBS-encoding genes. Analysis of the remaining 274 genes with an NBS structure (based on the Pfam database) identified 224 genes with highly conserved NBS regions and a complete open reading frame (ORF). Based on sequence differences in the N-terminal and LRR regions, these 224 NBS disease-resistance genes were classified into six types: NBS, NBS-LRR, NBS-X, X-NBS, NBS-LRR-X and NBS-X-LRR (the N-terminal region of most regular NBS genes contained unknown motifs represented as X). Fifty genes had highly differentiated NBS regions with structures that varied considerably from the other 224 genes. The N-terminal regions of these genes were also short (less than 2/3 the length of the normal NBS proteins). These genes were therefore classified as non-regular NBS genes. All non-redundant candidate NBS genes were also surveyed using Pfam, SMART and COILS to determine whether they encoded TIR, CC, NBS or LRR motifs (see Materials and Methods). This information on protein motifs and domains was used to classify the NBS-encoding genes into subgroups. Finally, 143 genes containing a CC motif were identified and divided into subtypes (COILS-NBS, COILS-NBS-LRR, COILS-NBS-LRR-X, COILS-NBS-X); these genes accounted for 63.8% of all standard NBS genes (Table 1).



At least 30,434, 45,555, 27,000, 37,544 and 36,338 protein-coding genes have been identified in the fully sequenced grape (Hulbert et al., 2001; Jaillon et al., 2001), poplar (Tuskan et al., 2006), Arabidopsis (Richly et al., 2002), rice (Zhou et al., 2004) and Sorghum genomes, respectively. NBS-LRR genes accounted for approximately 1.51%, 0.72%, 0.53%, 1.23% and 0.18% of all predicted ORFs in these five species, respectively. Although the absolute number of NBS-LRR genes in Sorghum was similar to rice, the relative proportion of these genes was significantly lower than in the vine grape, poplar, Arabidopsis and rice genomes (Table 1).

Chromosomal locations of Sorghum NBS genes

Standard NBS type disease-resistance genes were identified on the ten Sorghum chromosomes by using Genome Pixelizer software and classified into one of ten categories (CNL, CN, CNLX, CNX, CNXL, CXN, NX, N, NL and NLX), each represented by a different color (Figure 1).



Based on the location of individual NBS genes, 268 of the 274 Sorghum NBS-encoding genes were mapped on the ten chromosomes. The remaining genes were located on a sequence not yet linked to a chromosome (referred to as chromosome 0 in Figure 1). Of the 268 anchored NBS genes, 223 (83.2%) were located on chromosomes 3, 5, 7 and 8 (41, 45, 24 and 113 NBS-encoding genes on each respective chromosome); chromosome 1 had no NBS-encoding gene. No CC type genes were identified, while the chromosomal distribution of non-CC type genes showed an obvious pattern. As defined by Holub (2001), a gene cluster is a region in which two neighboring homologous genes are < 200 kb apart. Of the genes analyzed here, 217 were located in 20 gene clusters, each with an average of 12 genes (twice the average number of genes/cluster in rice). The largest cluster contained 36 NBS genes on chromosome 8. Most Sorghum NBS genes fell into multi-gene clusters, a distribution similar with that of rice and Arabidopsis. However, in contrast to the latter two species, most of the sorghum NBS gene clusters were located at the distal end of each chromosome (Figure 1).

Phylogenetic analysis of regular NBS genes in Sorghum

The amino acid sequences of the NBS region contained highly conserved motifs with high homology that allowed sequence alignment and the construction of phylogenetic trees to assess the relationships among the standard NBS disease-resistance genes in the sorghum genome (Figure 2). Two hundred and twenty-four standard NBS alleles were selected for sequence alignment and phylogenetic tree construction. The other 50 non-regular NBS genes were excluded because of their short N-termini.



The phylogenetic tree of the NBS domain in Arabidopsis (a dicotyledon) has two distinct clades, whereas there is no clear division of NBS regions in rice (a monocotyledon), which has a divergent, star-shaped distribution. Figure 2 shows that the phylogenetic tree of the Sorghum NBS domain also contained two major clades, which suggests that the evolutionary pattern of the Sorghum NBS domain was similar to that of Arabidopsis. Phylogenetic analysis revealed no independent clade for the NBS-LRR gene with the CC-motif, which suggested a complex pattern of evolution (Figure 2).



By using the NBS genes of other plants as queries we were able to identify 224 Sorghum genes with highly conserved NBS regions. No TIR-encoding genes were found among these 224 genes, a finding similar to that reported for rice (only one TIR-X gene identified) (Zhou et al., 2004) and maize. In contrast, the number of TIR encoding genes varies from 98 in Arabidopsis to 78 in poplar. TIR and non-TIR sequences are remarkably different among dicots and monocots, which suggest an ancient origin and subsequent divergence between the two NBS gene types; TIR-encoding genes appear to have been lost in grass genomes. The deduced NBS-LRR proteins were divided into two subfamilies, TIR-NBS-LRR (TNL) and non-TNL, based on their N-terminal features. Whereas dicotyledons such as Arabidopsis and poplar (Yang et al., 2008) have many NBS resistance genes that encode proteins with N-termini containing a TIR structure, no such structures were found among the Sorghum NBS-LRR genes; this situation is similar to that of other monocotyledons such as rice and maize. It is unclear why grass genomes have a greatly reduced set of TIR-encoding genes, although gene loss or the lack of TIR gene amplification are possible explanations. Phylogenetic analysis of the NBS genes revealed differences between Sorghum and other plants. Thus, unlike rice which shows no major clades in its NBS domain (Zhou et al., 2004), two major clades were identified in the Sorghum sequences. This difference may reflect different forms of duplication in the past, although the actual mechansim remains unclear.

There was considerable variation in the chromosomal distribution of NBS genes in Sorghum. For example, there were no NBS genes on chromosome 1, whereas chromosome 8 contained 90 NBS genes; this situation was similar to that of rice in which 25% of the R-like genes were present on chromosome 11. This finding indicates that there are chromosomal hot spots in which the NBS genes share greater homology; these genes may have originated by tandem duplication and subsequently diverged under selective pressure. Vine grape and poplar contain 77 and 75 clusters, respectively, including 445 and 281 NBS genes with an average of 5.78 and 3.75 NBS members per cluster. In Sorghum, 97% of the NBS genes were located in gene clusters, a much higher proportion than in vine grape and poplar; there was also potentially more duplication and more multi-gene families in the Sorghum genome compared to the latter two species. The Sorghum NBS resistance genes were distributed in clusters in the distal part of the chromosomes. This peculiar location may reflect the long period of contact between Sorghum and its pathogen, with the disease-resistance genes expanding by duplication and rearrangement to eventually form distributional hot spots on the chromosomes. Phylogenetic analysis of the Sorghum NBS genes revealed clusters containing NBS genes from the same or different families. Mixed clusters could arise by chromosomal rearrangement and transposition or by genomic duplication and mutations. Unequal crossing over based on regions of homology could also expand the cluster sizes.



This work was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant no. 10675002). We thank members of the Laboratory of Biomass Improvement and Conversion of Anhui province and Qing Ma for assistance in this work.



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Send correspondence to:
Beijiu Cheng
School of Life Science, Anhui Agricultural University
230036 Hefei, Anhui, China

Received: July 22, 2009; Accepted: December 1, 2009.



Associate Editor: Márcio de Castro Silva Filho

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