The identification of QTL involved in heterosis formation is one approach to unravel the not yet fully understood genetic basis of heterosis - the improved agronomic performance of hybrid F1 plants compared to their inbred parents. The identification of candidate genes underlying a QTL is important both for developing markers and determining the molecular genetic basis of a trait, but remains difficult owing to the large number of genes often contained within individual QTL. To address this problem in heterosis analysis, we applied a meta-analysis strategy for grain yield (GY) of Zea mays L. as example, incorporating QTL-, hybrid field-, and parental gene expression data.
For the identification of genes underlying known heterotic QTL, we made use of tight associations between gene expression pattern and the trait of interest, identified by correlation analyses. Using this approach genes strongly associated with heterosis for GY were discovered to be clustered in pericentromeric regions of the complex maize genome. This suggests that expression differences of sequences in recombination-suppressed regions are important in the establishment of heterosis for GY in F1 hybrids and also in the conservation of heterosis for GY across genotypes. Importantly functional analysis of heterosis-associated genes from these genomic regions revealed over-representation of a number of functional classes, identifying key processes contributing to heterosis for GY. Based on the finding that the majority of the analyzed heterosis-associated genes were addtitively expressed, we propose a model referring to the influence of cis-regulatory variation on heterosis for GY by the compensation of fixed detrimental expression levels in parents.
The study highlights the utility of a meta-analysis approach that integrates phenotypic and multi-level molecular data to unravel complex traits in plants. It provides prospects for the identification of genes relevant for QTL, and also suggests a model for the potential role of additive expression in the formation and conservation of heterosis for GY via dominant, multigenic quantitative trait loci. Our findings contribute to a deeper understanding of the multifactorial phenomenon of heterosis, and thus to the breeding of new high yielding varieties.