Transient expression of GFP in avocado
Preliminary experiments determined that avocado leaves are not suitable for agroinfection using a needleless syringe, as is commonly used for agroinfiltration of tobacco. Vacuum infiltration of leaves was therefore performed to allow penetration of agrobacteria, carrying the pJL-TRBO-G vector, into the inter cell spaces (Simmons et al., 2009). After 8 days post infection (DPI), infiltrated and control leaves were examined under a long wave UV light (365 nm); this method was initially chosen as a rapid means of evaluating transformation and has been used routinely in model plants such as tobacco transformed with GFP constructs (Casper & Holt, 1996). However, both control (non-transformed) and the agroinfiltrated leaves showed only slight basal fluorescence, possibly due to the autofluorescence of the leaf (Buschmann & Lichtenthaler, 1998). Supplementary Fig. 1 shows a representative image of control and agroinfiltrated leaves. This observation was consistent across different leaves and thus it was determined that this was not suitable for rapidly evaluating transformation efficiency using fluorescent proteins in avocado. It has been reported that the detection of GFP in green tissues using macroscopic methods can lead to a substantial underestimation of expression levels. In observations made in medicago, rice and Arabidopsis, chlorophyll interferes with GFP fluorescence (Zhou et al., 2005).
To assess if GFP protein was expressed in infiltrated leaves, total protein was extracted and a western blot assay was performed, with antibodies specific to GFP. Microwounding and JA treatments were included to determine whether these affected transformation and transgene expression. WB analysis revealed that microwounding in combination with JA treatment resulted in detectable GFP expression in some but not all independent samples. No GFP was detected in leaves that were treated with JA but not microwounded (Figure 2). These results demonstrate that whilst GFP can be detected following agroinfiltration of avocado leaves, it is not a suitable reporter for rapid macroscopic evaluation by long wavelength UV illumination.
Transient expression of the betalain biosynthetic pathway in avocado leaves and the impact of leaf age
Due to the difficulty in assessing GFP expression easily and quickly, we decided to evaluate the non-fluorescent reporter, RUBY. This expression plasmid comprises the cassette for expressing the enzymes P450 oxygenase CYP76AD1, L-DOPA 4,5-dioxygenase and glucosyltransferase, involved in the conversion of tyrosine into the red pigment, betalain (He et al., 2020). Betalains were first discovered in angiosperm plants, where they are unique to the order Caryophyllales and are present in these plants instead of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are derived from phenylalanine, while betalains are natural water-soluble pigments derived from tyrosine, and are composed of betaxanthins and betacyanins, the former yellow and the latter red to purple (Polturak & Aharoni, 2018). The bright red color from betalain is easily contrasted from green leaf color and brown caused by leaf damage and deterioration. The advantage of this reporter is that visualising the transformed area does not require specialized equipment such as fluorescence or confocal microscopes.
The RUBY construct was infiltrated into avocado leaves as described previously, using a combination of microwounding and vacuum infiltration of detached avocado leaves. Betalain synthesis produced red spots on avocado leaves easily distinguishable with the naked eye from the third day after agroinfiltration. As we previously been shown for transient expression of the GFP reporter, microwounding was required for efficient transformation. Additionally, leaf age had a significant impact on reporter expression (Figure 3). Leaves at the earliest stages (A and B) did not survive the infiltration treatments and so were excluded from our analysis. In addition, older leaves (stage E) consistently showed little or no evidence of reporter expression. In contrast, leaves at stage C and D displayed consistent betalain staining in the periphery of the microneedle-made wounds, which was confirmed by pixel density analysis of the stained area around wound sites (stage C, 6%; stage D, 9%). Several authors have reported that the transformation of plant cells by Agrobacterium is inversely proportional to the age of the tissue (Wixom et al., 2018). Some authors have proposed that physiological changes in the leaves when they mature hinder the infiltration of the Agrobacterium cell culture into the leaf parenchyma, therefore by reducing the diffusion of the Agrobacterium suspension and hence limiting the transformation potential of the tissue. The diffusive capability of syringe-infiltrated Agrobacterium suspension has been associated with the volume of the intercellular air spaces and the arrangement of the mesophyll cells inside the leaves (Zheng et al., 2021). A small intercellular and compartmentalized space, together with compact mesophyll cells will restrict the spread of the infiltrated suspension and therefore the transformation of cells. In Rosa chinensis it is thought that the stratum corneum and wax coat present in the outermost layer of mature leaves are responsible for the difficulty in infiltration and therefore the low transformation mediated by Agrobacterium (Lu et al., 2017). The evaluation of different stages of leaf development of the tropical tree Theobroma cacao L. for transient transformation with Agrobacterium has shown that leaf age affected transformation efficiency (Fister et al., 2016). Another possible explanation for the interesting result for the null transformation efficiency of leaves in the E group is that we hypothesize that at the time of making the micro-holes with the MW, the dense waxy layer covered the hole created by the needle and this prevented agroinfiltration, due to the fact that 0% transformation efficiency in all leaves is quite peculiar in this leaf stage regardless of the treatments, leading to speculation as to whether the agrobacterium suspension really did infiltrate (Supplementary Fig. 2).
The use of the RUBY reporter system in avocado transformation therefore resolves the limitations of reporters requiring fluorescence or confocal microscopy. The RUBY reporter system has only recently been developed and has so far been used as a visible marker in Arabidopsis, rice (He et al., 2020), and Bamboo (K. Chen et al., 2021) and is promising to drive the evaluation of plants with thick waxy cuticles.
Effect of wounding pre-treatment and jasmonic acid
Previous work has shown that pre-treatment with the phytohormone jasmonic acid (JA) can affect agrobacterium mediated transformation (Jung et al., 2014). Having determined that leaf age is a critical factor, we therefore evaluated whether treatment with JA affects the efficiency of transient expression. Our earlier experiments with pJL-TRBO-G had indicated that JA treatment alone was not sufficient for transient transgene expression (Figure 2). This observation was supported by new experiments focusing on leaves at stage C and D and using agroinfiltration of RUBY. Here, there was no significant betalain synthesis in leaves treated with JA, demonstrating that microwounding coupled with leaf age are the primary factors influencing the competence for transient transformation (Figure 3). Wounding is an integral step in Agrobacterium-mediated transformation and as well as providing an entry point for the bacteria, activates the production of vir-inducing molecules that facilitate the successful transformation of plants (Horsch et al. 2013). Since other phenolic compounds such as vanillin and cinnamic acid have been previously reported to induce vir genes even more potently than acetosyringone (Cha et al 2011), and given that these compounds are present in avocado (Castro-López et al 2019), we hypothesized that these, together with acetosyringone pre-treatment, may be behind the improved transformation efficiency in leaves that were microwounded.
Whilst JA did not appear to significantly affect transient transformation in the absence of microwounding, we did observe a synergistic effect when leaves were both microwounded and JA treated (Figure 4).(Cho & Winans, 2005) Image analysis was initially performed to quantify betalain staining and showed that staining was highest in stage D, followed by stage C leaves in the treatments with MW and JA with 27.9 and 12.1%, respectively. In the treatments without JA the area in which betalain is expressed is less than 10% being again higher for stage D, followed by C with 9.3 and 6%, respectively. This image analysis data was supported by spectrophotometric quantification of leaf extracts (Figure 5). Betalain was produced at a significantly greater level in leaves at stage C and D with MW and JA (+MW, +JA) treatment. Using this method to quantify transient expression, microwounding alone did not show significantly higher expression than control, highlighting the synergistic effect of both microwounding and JA treatment.
Our result of increased overexpression of the heterologous genes by including JA in the agroinfiltrated cell suspension in avocado leaves agrees with previous data for transient expression in detached whole sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) leaves using vacuum infiltration (Jung et al., 2014). Plant recalcitrance to Agrobacterium transformation is generally attributed to the activation of plant immune responses upon perception of the bacterium (Pitzschke, 2013). JA is a phytohormone that signals the plant defense response to insect injury by activating induced systemic resistance (ISR), at the same time deactivating systemic acquired resistance (SAR), which is triggered by salicylic acid (SA) and defends the plant against biotrophic infections. Therefore, addition of JA to the Agrobacterium infiltration medium is hypothesized to suppress SAR making the avocado leaves more vulnerable to bacterial infections (Pieterse et al., 2009). Plants deficient in SA have shown increased susceptibility to Agrobacterium, while plants overproducing this metabolite show increased recalcitrance to infection (Yuan et al., 2007). A study of JA application prior to agroinfiltration of Nicotiana benthamiana leaves (Robert et al., 2015) suggests that JA has practical utility for enhancing recombinant protein expression by producing a significant depletion of large and small subunit of RuBisCO, and consequently an availability of metabolites and cellular resources for recombinant proteins. This synergistic response may be due to all of the individual conditions mentioned above and as best of our knowledge has not been previously reported, opening an encouraging perspective for functional gene studies.