Background: Members of the ancient land-plant-specific transcription factor AT-Hook Motif Nuclear Localized (AHL) gene family regulate various biological processes. However, the relationships among the AHL genes, as well as their evolutionary history, still remain unexplored.
Results: We analyzed over 500 AHL genes from 19 land plant species, ranging from the early diverging Physcomitrella patens and Selaginella to a variety of monocot and dicot flowering plants. We classified the AHL proteins into three types (Type-I/-II/-III) based on the number and composition of their functional domains, the AT-hook motif(s) and PPC domain. We further inferred their phylogenies via Bayesian inference analysis and predicted gene gain/loss events throughout their diversification. Our analyses suggested that the AHL gene family emerged in embryophytes and further evolved into two distinct clades, with Type-I AHLs forming one clade (Clade-A), and the other two types together diversifying in another (Clade-B). The two AHL clades likely diverged before the separation of Physcomitrella patens from the vascular plant lineage. In angiosperms, Clade-A AHLs expanded into 5 subfamilies; while, the ones in Clade-B expanded into 4 subfamilies. Examination of their expression patterns suggests that the AHLs within each clade share similar expression patterns with each other; however, AHLs in one monophyletic clade exhibit distinct expression patterns from the ones in the other clade. Over-expression of a Glycine max AHL PPC domain in Arabidopsis thaliana recapitulates the phenotype observed when over-expressing its Arabidopsis thaliana counterpart. This result suggests that the AHL genes from different land plant species may share conserved functions in regulating plant growth and development. Our study further suggests that such functional conservation may be due to conserved physical interactions among the PPC domains of AHL proteins.
Conclusions: Our analyses reveal a possible evolutionary scenario for the AHL gene family in land plants, which will facilitate the design of new studies probing their biological functions. Manipulating the AHL genes has been suggested to have tremendous effects in agriculture through increased seedling establishment, enhanced plant biomass and improved plant immunity. The information gleaned from this study, in turn, has the potential to be utilized to further improve crop production.