Variation in the expression of genes with putative roles in wood development was associated with single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) using a population of loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) that included individuals from much of the native range. Association studies were performed using 3938 SNPs and expression data obtained using quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (qRT-PCR) for 106 xylem development genes in 400 clonally replicated loblolly pine individuals. A general linear model (GLM) approach, which takes the underlying population structure into consideration, was used to discover significant associations. After adjustment for multiple testing using a false discovery rate correction, 88 statistically significant associations (Q<0.05) were observed for 80 SNPs with the expression data of 33 xylem development genes. Thirty SNPs caused nonsynonymous mutations, 18 resulted in synonymous mutations, 11 were in 3' untranslated regions (UTRs), 1 was in a 5' UTR and 20 were in introns. Using AraNet, we found that Arabidopsis genes with high similarity to the loblolly pine genes involved in 21 of the 88 statistically significant associations are connected in functional gene networks. Comparisons of gene expression values revealed that in most cases the average expression in plants homozygous for the rare SNP allele was lower than that of plants that were heterozygous or homozygous for the abundant allele. Although there are association studies of SNPs and expression profiles for humans, Arabidopsis and white spruce, to the best of our knowledge, this is the first example of such an association genetic study in pines. Functional validation of these associations will lead to a deeper understanding of the molecular basis of phenotypic differences in wood development among individuals in conifer populations.
Keywords: association analyses; gene expression; loblolly pine/Pinus taeda L.; xylem development/wood development.