Evolution of metal hyperaccumulation required cis-regulatory changes and triplication of HMA4

Nature. 2008 May 15;453(7193):391-5. doi: 10.1038/nature06877. Epub 2008 Apr 20.


Little is known about the types of mutations underlying the evolution of species-specific traits. The metal hyperaccumulator Arabidopsis halleri has the rare ability to colonize heavy-metal-polluted soils, and, as an extremophile sister species of Arabidopsis thaliana, it is a powerful model for research on adaptation. A. halleri naturally accumulates and tolerates leaf concentrations as high as 2.2% zinc and 0.28% cadmium in dry biomass. On the basis of transcriptomics studies, metal hyperaccumulation in A. halleri has been associated with more than 30 candidate genes that are expressed at higher levels in A. halleri than in A. thaliana. Some of these genes have been genetically mapped to broad chromosomal segments of between 4 and 24 cM co-segregating with Zn and Cd hypertolerance. However, the in planta loss-of-function approaches required to demonstrate the contribution of a given candidate gene to metal hyperaccumulation or hypertolerance have not been pursued to date. Using RNA interference to downregulate HMA4 (HEAVY METAL ATPASE 4) expression, we show here that Zn hyperaccumulation and full hypertolerance to Cd and Zn in A. halleri depend on the metal pump HMA4. Contrary to a postulated global trans regulatory factor governing high expression of numerous metal hyperaccumulation genes, we demonstrate that enhanced expression of HMA4 in A. halleri is attributable to a combination of modified cis-regulatory sequences and copy number expansion, in comparison to A. thaliana. Transfer of an A. halleri HMA4 gene to A. thaliana recapitulates Zn partitioning into xylem vessels and the constitutive transcriptional upregulation of Zn deficiency response genes characteristic of Zn hyperaccumulators. Our results demonstrate the importance of cis-regulatory mutations and gene copy number expansion in the evolution of a complex naturally selected extreme trait. The elucidation of a natural strategy for metal hyperaccumulation enables the rational design of technologies for the clean-up of metal-contaminated soils and for bio-fortification.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / genetics
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adenosine Triphosphatases / genetics*
  • Adenosine Triphosphatases / metabolism
  • Arabidopsis / genetics*
  • Arabidopsis / metabolism*
  • Arabidopsis Proteins / genetics*
  • Arabidopsis Proteins / metabolism
  • Cadmium / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Dosage / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Plant / genetics
  • Genome, Plant / genetics
  • Metals / metabolism*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Organ Specificity
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic / genetics*
  • RNA Interference
  • Transcription, Genetic / genetics
  • Zinc / metabolism


  • Arabidopsis Proteins
  • Metals
  • Cadmium
  • Adenosine Triphosphatases
  • HMA4 protein, Arabidopsis
  • Zinc

Associated data

  • GENBANK/EU382072
  • GENBANK/EU382073