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Temperatures are expected to increase over the next century in all terrestrial biomes and particularly in boreal forests, where drought-induced mortality has been predicted to rise. Genomics research is helping to develop hypotheses regarding the molecular basis of drought tolerance and recent work proposed that the osmo-protecting dehydrin proteins have undergone a clade-specific expansion in the Pinaceae, a major group of conifer trees. The objectives of this study were to identify all of the putative members of the gene family, trace their evolutionary origin, examine their structural diversity and test for drought-responsive expression. We identified 41 complete dehydrin coding sequences in Picea glauca, which is four times more than most angiosperms studied to date, and more than in pines. Phylogenetic reconstructions indicated that the family has undergone an expansion in conifers, with parallel evolution implicating the sporadic resurgence of certain amino acid sequence motifs, and a major duplication giving rise to a clade specific to the Pinaceae. A variety of plant dehydrin structures were identified with variable numbers of the A-, E-, S- and K-segments and an N-terminal (N1) amino acid motif including assemblages specific to conifers. The expression of several of the spruce dehydrins was tissue preferential under non-stressful conditions or responded to water stress after 7-18 days without watering, reflecting changes in osmotic potential. We found that dehydrins with N1 K2 and N1 AESK2 sequences were the most responsive to the lack of water. Together, the family expansion, drought-responsive expression and structural diversification involving loss and gain of amino acid motifs suggests that subfunctionalization has driven the diversification seen among dehydrin gene duplicates. Our findings clearly indicate that dehydrins represent a large family of candidate genes for drought tolerance in spruces and in other Pinaceae that may underpin adaptability in spatially and temporally variable environments.

Original publication




Journal article


Tree Physiol

Publication Date





442 - 456


Droughts, Evolution, Molecular, Gene Expression Regulation, Plant, Multigene Family, Phylogeny, Picea, Pinaceae, Plant Proteins, Sequence Analysis, DNA