Cell number is a critical factor that determines kernel size in maize (Zea mays). Rapid mitotic divisions in early endosperm development produce most of the cells that make up the starchy endosperm; however, the mechanisms underlying early endosperm development remain largely unknown. We isolated a maize mutant that shows a varied-kernel-size phenotype (vks1). Vks1 encodes ZmKIN11, which belongs to the kinesin-14 subfamily and is predominantly expressed in early endosperm development. VKS1 dynamically localizes to the nucleus and microtubules and plays key roles in the migration of free nuclei in the coenocyte as well as in mitosis and cytokinesis in early mitotic divisions. Absence of VKS1 has relatively minor effects on plants but causes deformities in spindle assembly, sister chromatid separation, and phragmoplast formation in early endosperm development, thereby resulting in reduced cell proliferation. Severities of aberrant mitosis and cytokinesis within individual vks1 endosperms differ, thereby resulting in varied kernel sizes. Our discovery highlights VKS1 as a central regulator of mitosis in early maize endosperm development and provides a potential approach for future yield improvement.
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