Cytokinins are plant hormones that may play essential and crucial roles in various aspects of plant growth and development. Although the functional significance of exogenous cytokinins as to the proliferation and differentiation of cells has been well documented, the biological roles of endogenous cytokinins have remained largely unknown. The recent discovery of the Arabidopsis Histidine Kinase 4 (AHK4)/CRE1/WOL cytokinin receptor in Arabidopsis thaliana strongly suggested that the cellular response to cytokinins involves a two-component signal transduction system. However, the lack of an apparent phenotype in the mutant, presumably because of genetic redundancy, prevented us from determining the in planta roles of the cytokinin receptor. To gain insight into the molecular functions of the three AHK genes AHK2, AHK3, and AHK4 in this study, we identified mutational alleles of the AHK2 and AHK3 genes, both of which encode sensor histidine kinases closely related to AHK4, and constructed a set of multiple ahk mutants. Application of exogenous cytokinins to the resultant strains revealed that both AHK2 and AHK3 function as positive regulators for cytokinin signaling similar to AHK4. The ahk2 ahk4 and ahk3 ahk4 double mutants and the ahk single mutants grew normally, whereas the ahk2 ahk3 double mutants exhibited a semidwarf phenotype as to shoots, such as a reduced leaf size and a reduced influorescence stem length. The growth and development of the ahk2 ahk3 ahk4 triple mutant were markedly inhibited in various tissues and organs, including the roots and leaves in the vegetative growth phase and the influorescence meristem in the reproductive phase. We showed that the inhibition of growth is associated with reduced meristematic activity of cells. Expression analysis involving AHK:beta-glucuronidase fusion genes suggested that the AHK genes are expressed ubiquitously in various tissues during postembryonic growth and development. Our results thus strongly suggest that the primary functions of AHK genes, and those of endogenous cytokinins, are triggering of the cell division and maintenance of the meristematic competence of cells to prevent subsequent differentiation until a sufficient number of cells has accumulated during organogenesis.
Copyright 2004 American Society of Plant Biologists