Phase-Specific Expression across the Fern Life Cycle
Ferns, like all land plants, have a life cycle that alternates between multicellular diploid (spore-producing sporophyte) and multicellular haploid (gamete-producing gametophyte) phases, punctuated by meiosis and fertilization. However, it is in the ferns, particularly the homosporous ferns, that the manifestation of these two generations as independent entities is most extreme. Fern sporophytes are long-lived and complex branching plants composed of roots, stems, and leaves. Fern gametophytes, while smaller (often less than one centimeter) and having fewer tissue types, are mostly photosynthetic and can persist independently for multiple growing seasons, sometimes indefinitely. Thus, the fern sporophyte and gametophyte are two distinct organisms, varying in morphology, physiology, persistence, ecology, and (usually) chromosome number, but having a common genomic composition.
The phase-specific morphologies and functions of fern gametophytes and sporophytes result from different gene expression patterns, with some genes uniquely expressed in each phase. Working in collaboration with Dr. Joshua Der (California State University, Fullerton) I am using RNA-Seq to generate transcript profiles of sporophyte and gametophyte tissue of the diploid fern species Polypodium amorphum. Because of the unique biology of homosporous ferns, we are able to implement a biologically replicated, paired-sample experimental design whereby gametophytes are cultured from specific sporophyte individuals. To date, we have assessed the overlap in the identity of genes expressed in both phases, identified genes with phase-biased expression, and tested for differential selection pressures between gametophyte-specific and sporophyte-specific genes.
Homosporous ferns occupy an intermediate position in the continuum of land plant life cycles. They have persistant, photosynthetic gametophytes like bryophytes, but they also have elaborate, dominant sporophytes like seed plants. This study of phase-specific gene expression in Polypodium amorphum will help illuminate the regulatory changes associated with the shift from gametophyte-dominant to sporophyte-dominant life cycles.