Drought stress causes heavy damages to crop growth and productivity under global climatic changes. Transcription factors have been extensively studied in many crops to play important roles in plant growth and defense. However, there is a scarcity of studies regarding WRKY transcription factors regulating drought responses in maize crops. Previously, ZmWRKY79 was identified as the regulator of maize phytoalexin biosynthesis with inducible expression under different elicitation. Here, we elucidated the function of ZmWRKY79 in drought stress through regulating ABA biosynthesis. The overexpression of ZmWRKY79 in Arabidopsis improved the survival rate under drought stress, which was accompanied by more lateral roots, lower stomatal aperture, and water loss. ROS scavenging was also boosted by ZmWRKY79 to result in less H2O2 and MDA accumulation and increased antioxidant enzyme activities. Further analysis detected more ABA production in ZmWRKY79 overexpression lines under drought stress, which was consistent with up-regulated ABA biosynthetic gene expression by RNA-seq analysis. ZmWRKY79 was observed to target ZmAAO3 genes in maize protoplast through acting on the specific W-boxes of the corresponding gene promoters. Virus-induced gene silencing of ZmWRKY79 in maize resulted in compromised drought tolerance with more H2O2 accumulation and weaker root system architecture. Together, this study substantiates the role of ZmWRKY79 in the drought-tolerance mechanism through regulating ABA biosynthesis, suggesting its broad functions not only as the regulator in phytoalexin biosynthesis against pathogen infection but also playing the positive role in abiotic stress response, which provides a WRKY candidate gene to improve drought tolerance for maize and other crop plants.
Keywords: ABA; WRKY; drought; maize; transcription factor.