Multisubunit RNA polymerase (Pol) complexes are the core machinery for gene expression in eukaryotes. The enzymes Pol I, Pol II and Pol III transcribe distinct subsets of nuclear genes. This family of nuclear RNA polymerases expanded in terrestrial plants by the duplication of Pol II subunit genes. Two Pol II-related enzymes, Pol IV and Pol V, are highly specialized in the production of regulatory, non-coding RNAs. Pol IV and Pol V are the central players of RNA-directed DNA methylation (RdDM), an RNA interference pathway that represses transposable elements (TEs) and selected genes. Genetic and biochemical analyses of Pol IV/V subunits are now revealing how these enzymes evolved from ancestral Pol II to sustain non-coding RNA biogenesis in silent chromatin. Intriguingly, Pol IV-RdDM regulates genes that influence flowering time, reproductive development, stress responses and plant-pathogen interactions. Pol IV target genes vary among closely related taxa, indicating that these regulatory circuits are often species-specific. Data from crops like maize, rice, tomato and Brassica rapa suggest that dynamic repositioning of TEs, accompanied by Pol IV targeting to TE-proximal genes, leads to the reprogramming of plant gene expression over short evolutionary timescales.
Keywords: RNA polymerase IV (Pol IV); RNA-directed DNA Methylation; non-coding RNA; plant gene regulation; transposable elements.