Small RNAs are abundant in plant reproductive tissues, especially 24-nucleotide (nt) small interfering RNAs (siRNAs). Most 24-nt siRNAs are dependent on RNA Pol IV and RNA-DEPENDENT RNA POLYMERASE 2 (RDR2) and establish DNA methylation at thousands of genomic loci in a process called RNA-directed DNA methylation (RdDM). In Brassica rapa, RdDM is required in the maternal sporophyte for successful seed development. Here, we demonstrate that a small number of siRNA loci account for over 90% of siRNA expression during B. rapa seed development. These loci exhibit unique characteristics with regard to their copy number and association with genomic features, but they resemble canonical 24-nt siRNA loci in their dependence on RNA Pol IV/RDR2 and role in RdDM. These loci are expressed in ovules before fertilization and in the seed coat, embryo, and endosperm following fertilization. We observed a similar pattern of 24-nt siRNA expression in diverse angiosperms despite rapid sequence evolution at siren loci. In the endosperm, siren siRNAs show a marked maternal bias, and siren expression in maternal sporophytic tissues is required for siren siRNA accumulation. Together, these results demonstrate that seed development occurs under the influence of abundant maternal siRNAs that might be transported to, and function in, filial tissues.
Keywords: RNA-directed DNA methylation; epigenetics; seed development; siRNA.