Background: In plants, post-transcriptional gene silencing results in RNA degradation after transcription. Among tobacco transformants carrying a nitrate reductase (Nia) construct under the control of the cauliflower mosaic virus 35S promoter (35S-Nia2), one class of transformants spontaneously triggers Nia post-transcriptional gene silencing (class II) whereas another class does not (class I). Non-silenced plants of both classes become silenced when grafted onto silenced stocks, indicating the existence of a systemic silencing signal. Graft-transmitted silencing is maintained in class II but not in class I plants when removed from silenced stocks, indicating similar requirements for spontaneous triggering and maintenance.
Results: Introduction of 35S-Nia2 DNA by the gene transfer method called biolistics led to localised acquired silencing (LAS) in bombarded leaves of wild-type, class I and class II plants, and to systemic acquired silencing (SAS) in class II plants. SAS occurred even if the targeted leaf was removed 2 days after bombardment, indicating that the systemic signal is produced, transmitted and amplified rapidly. SAS was activated by sense, antisense and promoterless Nia2 DNA constructs, indicating that transcription is not required although it does stimulate SAS.
Conclusions: SAS was activated by biolistic introduction of promoterless constructs, indicating that the DNA itself is a potent activator of post-transcriptional gene silencing. The systemic silencing signal invaded the whole plant by cell-to-cell and long-distance propagation, and reamplification of the signal.