Virtually all land plants are coated in a cuticle, a waxy polyester that prevents nonstomatal water loss and is important for heat and drought tolerance. Here, we describe a likely genetic basis for a divergence in cuticular wax chemistry between Sorghum bicolor, a drought tolerant crop widely cultivated in hot climates, and its close relative Zea mays (maize). Combining chemical analyses, heterologous expression, and comparative genomics, we reveal that: 1) sorghum and maize leaf waxes are similar at the juvenile stage but, after the juvenile-to-adult transition, sorghum leaf waxes are rich in triterpenoids that are absent from maize; 2) biosynthesis of the majority of sorghum leaf triterpenoids is mediated by a gene that maize and sorghum both inherited from a common ancestor but that is only functionally maintained in sorghum; and 3) sorghum leaf triterpenoids accumulate in a spatial pattern that was previously shown to strengthen the cuticle and decrease water loss at high temperatures. These findings uncover the possibility for resurrection of a cuticular triterpenoid-synthesizing gene in maize that could create a more heat-tolerant water barrier on the plant’s leaf surfaces. They also provide a fundamental understanding of sorghum leaf waxes that will inform efforts to divert surface carbon to intracellular storage for bioenergy and bioproduct innovations.
|Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
|Published - Mar 23 2021
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- Cuticular wax | drought tolerance | triterpenoids | juvenile-to-adult transition | sorghum bicolor