Plants develop tolerance to drought by activating genes with altered levels of epigenetic modifications. Specific transcription factors are involved in this activation, but the molecular connections within the regulatory system are unclear. Here, we analyzed genome-wide acetylated lysine residue 9 of histone H3 (H3K9ac) enrichment and examined its association with transcriptomes in Populus trichocarpa under drought stress. We revealed that abscisic acid-Responsive Element (ABRE) motifs in promoters of the drought-responsive genes PtrNAC006, PtrNAC007, and PtrNAC120 are involved in H3K9ac enhancement and activation of these genes. Overexpressing these PtrNAC genes in P. trichocarpa resulted in strong drought-tolerance phenotypes. We showed that the ABRE binding protein PtrAREB1-2 binds to ABRE motifs associated with these PtrNAC genes and recruits the histone acetyltransferase unit ADA2b-GCN5, forming AREB1-ADA2b-GCN5 ternary protein complexes. Moreover, this recruitment enables GCN5-mediated histone acetylation to enhance H3K9ac and enrich RNA polymerase II specifically at these PtrNAC genes for the development of drought tolerance. CRISPR editing or RNA interference-mediated downregulation of any of the ternary members results in highly drought-sensitive P. trichocarpa. Thus, the combinatorial function of the ternary proteins establishes a coordinated histone acetylation and transcription factor-mediated gene activation for drought response and tolerance in Populus species.
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