Flowers are produced by floral meristems, groups of stem cells that give rise to floral organs. In grasses, including the major cereal crops, flowers (florets) are contained in spikelets, which contain one to many florets, depending on the species. Importantly, not all grass florets are developmentally equivalent, and one or more florets are often sterile or abort in each spikelet. Members of the Andropogoneae tribe, including maize (Zea mays), produce spikelets with two florets; the upper and lower florets are usually dimorphic, and the lower floret is greatly reduced compared to the upper floret. In maize ears, early development appears identical in both florets but the lower floret ultimately aborts. To gain insight into the functional differences between florets with different fates, we used laser capture microdissection coupled with RNA-seq to globally examine gene expression in upper and lower floral meristems in maize. Differentially expressed genes were involved in hormone regulation, cell wall, sugar and energy homeostasis. Furthermore, cell wall modifications and sugar accumulation differed between the upper and lower florets. Finally, we identified a boundary domain between upper and lower florets, which we hypothesize is important for floral meristem activity. We propose a model in which growth is suppressed in the lower floret by limiting sugar availability and upregulating genes involved in growth repression. This growth repression module may also regulate floret fertility in other grasses and potentially be modulated to engineer more productive cereal crops.
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