Diversity of floral regulatory genes of japonica rice cultivated at northern latitudes
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Background: Rice is considered a short day plant. Originally from tropical regions rice has been progressively adapted to temperate climates and long day conditions in part by modulating its sensitivity to day length. Heading date 3a (Hd3a) and RICE FLOWERING LOCUS T 1 (RFT1) that code for florigens, are known as major regulatory genes of floral transition in rice. Both Hd3a and RFT1 are regulated by Early heading date 1 (Ehd1) and Days to heading on chromosome 2 (DTH2) while Heading date 1 (Hd1) also governs Hd3a expression. To investigate the mechanism of rice adaptation to temperate climates we have analyzed the natural variation of these five genes in a collection of japonica rice representing the genetic diversity of long day cultivated rice. Results: We have investigated polymorphisms of Hd3a, RFT1, Ehd1, Hd1 and DTH2 in a collection of 57 japonica varieties. Hd3a and RFT1 were highly conserved, displaying one major allele. Expression analysis suggested that RFT1 rather than Hd3a could be the pivotal gene controlling flowering under long day conditions. While few alleles were found in the Ehd1 promoter and DTH2 coding region, a high degree of variation in Hd1, including non-functional alleles, was observed. Correlation analysis between gene expression levels and flowering periods suggested the occurrence of other factors, additionally to Ehd1, affecting RFT1 regulation in long day adapted cultivars. Conclusions: During domestication, rice expansion was accompanied by changes in the regulatory mechanism of flowering. The existence of non-functional Hd1 alleles and the lack of correlation of their presence with flowering times in plants grown under long day conditions, indicate a minor role of this branch in this process and the existence of an alternative regulatory pathway in northern latitudes. Expression analysis data and a high degree of conservation of RFT1 suggested that this gene could be the main factor regulating flowering among japonica cultivars adapted to northern areas. In the absence of inhibition exerted by Hd1 through repression of Hd3a expression, the role of Ehd1 as a regulator of RFT1 and Hd3a appears to be reinforced. Data also indicated the occurrence of additional regulatory factors controlling flowering.