A transposon surveillance mechanism that safeguards plant male fertility during stress

Nat Plants. 2021 Jan 4. doi: 10.1038/s41477-020-00818-5. Online ahead of print.


Although plants are able to withstand a range of environmental conditions, spikes in ambient temperature can impact plant fertility causing reductions in seed yield and notable economic losses1,2. Therefore, understanding the precise molecular mechanisms that underpin plant fertility under environmental constraints is critical to safeguarding future food production3. Here, we identified two Argonaute-like proteins whose activities are required to sustain male fertility in maize plants under high temperatures. We found that MALE-ASSOCIATED ARGONAUTE-1 and -2 associate with temperature-induced phased secondary small RNAs in pre-meiotic anthers and are essential to controlling the activity of retrotransposons in male meiocyte initials. Biochemical and structural analyses revealed how male-associated Argonaute activity and its interaction with retrotransposon RNA targets is modulated through the dynamic phosphorylation of a set of highly conserved, surface-located serine residues. Our results demonstrate that an Argonaute-dependent, RNA-guided surveillance mechanism is critical in plants to sustain male fertility under environmentally constrained conditions, by controlling the mutagenic activity of transposons in male germ cells.