Early seed development events are highly sensitive to increased temperature. This high sensitivity to a short-duration temperature spike reduces seed viability and seed size at maturity. The molecular basis of heat stress sensitivity during early seed development is not known. We selected rice (Oryza sativa), a highly heat-sensitive species, to explore this phenomenon. Here, we elucidate the molecular pathways that contribute to the heat sensitivity of a critical developmental window during which the endosperm transitions from syncytium to the cellularization stage in young seeds. A transcriptomic comparison of seeds exposed to moderate (35°C) and severe (39°C) heat stress with control (28°C) seeds identified a set of putative imprinted genes, which were down-regulated under severe heat stress. Several type I MADS box genes specifically expressed during the syncytial stage were differentially regulated under moderate and severe heat stress. The suppression and overaccumulation of these genes are associated with precocious and delayed cellularization under moderate and severe stress, respectively. We show that modulating the expression of OsMADS87, one of the heat-sensitive, imprinted genes associated with syncytial stage endosperm, regulates rice seed size. Transgenic seeds deficient in OsMADS87 exhibit accelerated endosperm cellularization. These seeds also have lower sensitivity to a moderate heat stress in terms of seed size reduction compared with seeds from wild-type plants and plants overexpressing OsMADS87 Our findings suggest that OsMADS87 and several other genes identified in this study could be potential targets for improving the thermal resilience of rice during reproductive development.
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