Background: Gene expression is a key determinant of cellular response. Natural variation in gene expression bridges genetic variation to phenotypic alteration. Identification of the regulatory variants controlling the gene expression in response to drought, a major environmental threat of crop production worldwide, is of great value for drought-tolerant gene identification.
Results: A total of 627 RNA-seq analyses are performed for 224 maize accessions which represent a wide genetic diversity under three water regimes; 73,573 eQTLs are detected for about 30,000 expressing genes with high-density genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphisms, reflecting a comprehensive and dynamic genetic architecture of gene expression in response to drought. The regulatory variants controlling the gene expression constitutively or drought-dynamically are unraveled. Focusing on dynamic regulatory variants resolved to genes encoding transcription factors, a drought-responsive network reflecting a hierarchy of transcription factors and their target genes is built. Moreover, 97 genes are prioritized to associate with drought tolerance due to their expression variations through the Mendelian randomization analysis. One of the candidate genes, Abscisic acid 8'-hydroxylase, is verified to play a negative role in plant drought tolerance.
Conclusions: This study unravels the effects of genetic variants on gene expression dynamics in drought response which allows us to better understand the role of distal and proximal genetic effects on gene expression and phenotypic plasticity. The prioritized drought-associated genes may serve as direct targets for functional investigation or allelic mining.
Keywords: Drought response; Gene expression; Maize; Regulatory variants; Stress tolerance.