Background Plants are sessile organisms that deal with their -sometimes adverse- environment in well-regulated ways. Chromatin remodeling involving SWI/SNF2-type ATPases is thought to be an important epigenetic mechanism for the regulation of gene expression in different developmental programs and for integrating these programs with the response to environmental signals. In this study, we report on the role of chromatin remodeling in Arabidopsis with respect to the variability of growth and gene expression in relationship to environmental conditions. Results Already modest (2-fold) over-expression of the AtCHR23 ATPase gene in Arabidopsis results in overall reduced growth compared to the wild-type. Detailed analyses show that in the root, the reduction of growth is due to reduced cell elongation. The reduced-growth phenotype requires sufficient light and is magnified by applying deliberate abiotic (salt, osmotic) stress. In contrast, the knockout mutation of AtCHR23 does not lead to such visible phenotypic effects. In addition, we show that over-expression of AtCHR23 increases the variability of growth in populations of genetically identical plants. These data indicate that accurate and controlled expression of AtCHR23 contributes to the stability or robustness of growth. Detailed RNAseq analyses demonstrate that upon AtCHR23 over-expression also the variation of gene expression is increased in a subset of genes that associate with environmental stress. The larger variation of gene expression is confirmed in individual plants with the help of independent qRT-PCR analysis. Conclusions Over-expression of AtCHR23 gives Arabidopsis a phenotype that is markedly different from the growth arrest phenotype observed upon over-expression of AtCHR12, the paralog of AtCHR23, in response to abiotic stress. This demonstrates functional sub-specialization of highly similar ATPases in Arabidopsis. Over-expression of AtCHR23 increases the variability of growth among genetically identical individuals in a way that is consistent with increased variability of expression of a distinct subset of genes that associate with environmental stress. We propose that ATCHR23-mediated chromatin remodeling is a potential component of a buffer system in plants that protects against environmentally-induced phenotypic and transcriptional variation.
- stress responses