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BMC Genomics. 2011 Dec 16;12:608. doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-12-608.

Defense mechanisms against herbivory in Picea: sequence evolution and expression regulation of gene family members in the phenylpropanoid pathway.

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Department of Forest Sciences, University of British Columbia, 2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T1Z4, Canada.



In trees, a substantial amount of carbon is directed towards production of phenolics for development and defense. This metabolic pathway is also a major factor in resistance to insect pathogens in spruce. In such gene families, environmental stimuli may have an important effect on the evolutionary fate of duplicated genes, and different expression patterns may indicate functional diversification.


Gene families in spruce (Picea) have expanded to superfamilies, including O-methyltransferases, cytochrome-P450, and dirigents/classIII-peroxidases. Neo-functionalization of superfamily members from different clades is reflected in expression diversification. Genetical genomics can provide new insights into the genetic basis and evolution of insect resistance in plants. Adopting this approach, we merged genotype data (252 SNPs in a segregating pedigree), gene expression levels (for 428 phenylpropanoid-related genes) and measures of susceptibility to Pissodes stobi, using a partial-diallel crossing-design with white spruce (Picea glauca). Thirty-eight expressed phenylpropanoid-related genes co-segregated with weevil susceptibility, indicating either causative or reactive effects of these genes to weevil resistance. We identified eight regulatory genomic regions with extensive overlap of quantitative trait loci from susceptibility and growth phenotypes (pQTLs) and expression QTL (eQTL) hotspots. In particular, SNPs within two different CCoAOMT loci regulate phenotypic variation from a common set of 24 genes and three resistance traits.


Pest resistance was associated with individual candidate genes as well as with trans-regulatory hotspots along the spruce genome. Our results showed that specific genes within the phenylpropanoid pathway have been duplicated and diversified in the conifer in a process fundamentally different from short-lived angiosperm species. These findings add to the information about the role of the phenylpropanoid pathway in the evolution of plant defense mechanisms against insect pests and provide substantial potential for the functional characterization of several not yet resolved alternative pathways in plant defenses.

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