Cold acclimation and winter survival in cereal species is determined by complicated environmentally regulated gene expression. However, studies investigating these complex cold responses are mostly conducted in controlled environments that only consider the responses to single environmental variables. In this study, we have comprehensively profiled global transcriptional responses in crowns of field-grown spring and winter wheat (Triticum aestivum) genotypes and their near-isogenic lines with the VRN-A1 alleles swapped. This in-depth analysis revealed multiple signaling, interactive pathways that influence cold tolerance and phenological development to optimize plant growth and development in preparation for a wide range of over-winter stresses. Investigation of genetic differences at the VRN-A1 locus revealed that a vernalization requirement maintained a higher level of cold response pathways while VRN-A1 genetically promoted floral development. Our results also demonstrated the influence of genetic background on the expression of cold and flowering pathways. The link between delayed shoot apex development and the induction of cold tolerance was reflected by the gradual up-regulation of abscisic acid-dependent and C-REPEAT-BINDING FACTOR pathways. This was accompanied by the down-regulation of key genes involved in meristem development as the autumn progressed. The chromosome location of differentially expressed genes between the winter and spring wheat genetic backgrounds showed a striking pattern of biased gene expression on chromosomes 6A and 6D, indicating a transcriptional regulation at the genome level. This finding adds to the complexity of the genetic cascades and gene interactions that determine the evolutionary patterns of both phenological development and cold tolerance traits in wheat.
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