Desiccation-tolerance in vegetative tissues of angiosperms has a polyphyletic origin and could be due to 1) appropriation of the seed-specific program of gene expression that protects orthodox seeds against desiccation, and/or 2) a sustainable version of the abiotic stress response. We tested these hypotheses by comparing molecular and physiological data from the development of orthodox seeds, the response of desiccation-sensitive plants to abiotic stress, and the response of desiccation-tolerant plants to extreme water loss. Analysis of publicly-available gene expression data of 35 LEA proteins and 68 anti-oxidant enzymes in the desiccation-sensitive Arabidopsis thaliana identified 13 LEAs and 4 anti-oxidants exclusively expressed in seeds. Two (a LEA6 and 1-cys-peroxiredoxin) are not expressed in vegetative tissues in A. thaliana, but have orthologues that are specifically activated in desiccating leaves of Xerophyta humilis. A comparison of antioxidant enzyme activity in two desiccation-sensitive species of Eragrostis with the desiccation-tolerant E. nindensis showed equivalent responses upon initial dehydration, but activity was retained at low water content in E. nindensis only. We propose that these antioxidants are housekeeping enzymes and that they are protected from damage in the desiccation-tolerant species. Sucrose is considered an important protectant against desiccation in orthodox seeds, and we show that sucrose accumulates in drying leaves of E. nindensis, but not in the desiccation-sensitive Eragrostis species. The activation of “seed-specific” desiccation protection mechanisms (sucrose accumulation and expression of LEA6 and 1-cys-peroxiredoxin genes) in the vegetative tissues of desiccation-tolerant plants points towards acquisition of desiccation tolerance from seeds.
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Vol. 45 • No. 5