Integrated Genome-Scale Analysis Identifies Novel Genes and Networks Underlying Senescence in Maize

Premature senescence in annual crops reduces yield, while delayed senescence, termed stay-green, imposes positive and negative impacts on yield and nutrition quality. Despite its importance, scant information is available on the genetic architecture of senescence in maize (Zea mays) and other cereals. We combined a systematic characterization of natural diversity for senescence in maize and coexpression networks derived from transcriptome analysis of normally senescing and stay-green lines. Sixty-four candidate genes were identified by genome-wide association study (GWAS), and 14 of these genes are supported by additional evidence for involvement in senescence-related processes including proteolysis, sugar transport and signaling, and sink activity. Eight of the GWAS candidates, independently supported by a coexpression network underlying stay-green, include a trehalose-6-phosphate synthase, a NAC transcription factor, and two xylan biosynthetic enzymes. Source–sink communication and the activity of cell walls as a secondary sink emerge as key determinants of stay-green. Mutant analysis supports the role of a candidate encoding Cys protease in stay-green in Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana), and analysis of natural alleles suggests a similar role in maize. This study provides a foundation for enhanced understanding and manipulation of senescence for increasing carbon yield, nutritional quality, and stress tolerance of maize and other cereals.

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