Background: StWhy1, a member of the plant-specific Whirly single-stranded DNA-binding protein family, was first characterized as a transcription factor involved in the activation of the nuclear PR-10a gene following defense-related stress in potato. In Arabidopsis thaliana, Whirlies have recently been shown to be primarily localized in organelles. Two representatives of the family, AtWhy1 and AtWhy3 are imported into plastids while AtWhy2 localizes to mitochondria. Their function in organelles is currently unknown.
Results: To understand the role of mitochondrial Whirlies in higher plants, we produced A. thaliana lines with altered expression of the atwhy2 gene. Organellar DNA immunoprecipitation experiments demonstrated that AtWhy2 binds to mitochondrial DNA. Overexpression of atwhy2 in plants perturbs mitochondrial function by causing a diminution in transcript levels and mtDNA content which translates into a low activity level of respiratory chain complexes containing mtDNA-encoded subunits. This lowered activity of mitochondria yielded plants that were reduced in size and had distorted leaves that exhibited accelerated senescence. Overexpression of atwhy2 also led to early accumulation of senescence marker transcripts in mature leaves. Inactivation of the atwhy2 gene did not affect plant development and had no detectable effect on mitochondrial morphology, activity of respiratory chain complexes, transcription or the amount of mtDNA present. This lack of phenotype upon abrogation of atwhy2 expression suggests the presence of functional homologues of the Whirlies or the activation of compensating mechanisms in mitochondria.
Conclusion: AtWhy2 is associated with mtDNA and its overexpression results in the production of dysfunctional mitochondria. This report constitutes the first evidence of a function for the Whirlies in organelles. We propose that they could play a role in the regulation of the gene expression machinery of organelles.