Background: With a cultivation area of 1.75 Mio ha and sugar yield of 16.7 Mio tons in 2006, sugar beet is a crop of great economic importance in Europe. The productivity of sugar beet is determined significantly by seed vigour and field emergence potential; however, little is known about the molecular mechanisms underlying these traits. Both traits exhibit large variations within sugar beet germplasm that have been difficult to ascribe to either environmental or genetic causes. Among potential targets for trait improvement, an enhancement of stress tolerance is considered because of the high negative influence of environmental stresses on trait parameters. Extending our knowledge of genetic and molecular determinants of sugar beet germination, stress response and adaptation mechanisms would facilitate the detection of new targets for breeding crop with an enhanced field emergence potential.
Results: To gain insight into the sugar beet germination we initiated an analysis of gene expression in a well emerging sugar beet hybrid showing high germination potential under various environmental conditions. A total of 2,784 ESTs representing 2,251 'unigenes' was generated from dry mature and germinating seeds. Analysis of the temporal expression of these genes during germination under non-stress conditions uncovered drastic transcriptional changes accompanying a shift from quiescent to metabolically active stages of the plant life cycle. Assay of germination under stressful conditions revealed 157 genes showing significantly different expression patterns in response to stress. As deduced from transcriptome data, stress adaptation mechanisms included an alteration in reserve mobilization pathways, an accumulation of the osmoprotectant glycine betaine, late embryogenesis abundant proteins and detoxification enzymes. The observed transcriptional changes are supposed to be regulated by ABA-dependent signal transduction pathway.
Conclusion: This study provides an important step toward the understanding of main events and metabolic pathways during germination in sugar beet. The reported alterations of gene expression in response to stress shed light on sugar beet stress adaptation mechanisms. Some of the identified stress-responsive genes provide a new potential source for improvement of sugar beet stress tolerance during germination and field emergence.