Background: Fabaceae plants appear to contain larger numbers of subclade IVa basic-helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors than other plant families, and some members of this subclade have been identified as saponin biosynthesis regulators. We aimed to systematically elucidate the diversification of this subclade and obtain insights into the evolutionary history of saponin biosynthesis regulation in Fabaceae.
Results: In this study, we collected sequences of subclade IVa bHLH proteins from 40 species, including fabids and other plants, and found greater numbers of subclade IVa bHLHs in Fabaceae. We confirmed conservation of the bHLH domain, C-terminal ACT-like domain, and exon-intron organisation among almost all subclade IVa members in model legumes, supporting the results of our classification. Phylogenetic tree-based classification of subclade IVa revealed the presence of three different groups. Interestingly, most Fabaceae subclade IVa bHLHs fell into group 1, which contained all legume saponin biosynthesis regulators identified to date. These observations support the co-occurrence and Fabaceae-specific diversification of saponin biosynthesis regulators. Comparing the expression of orthologous genes in Glycine max, Medicago truncatula, and Lotus japonicus, orthologues of MtTSAR1 (the first identified soyasaponin biosynthesis regulatory transcription factor) were not expressed in the same tissues, suggesting that group 1 members have gained different expression patterns and contributions to saponin biosynthesis during their duplication and divergence. On the other hand, groups 2 and 3 possessed fewer members, and their phylogenetic relationships and expression patterns were highly conserved, indicating that their activities may be conserved across Fabaceae.
Conclusions: This study suggests subdivision and diversification of subclade IVa bHLHs in Fabaceae plants. The results will be useful for candidate selection of unidentified saponin biosynthesis regulators. Furthermore, the functions of groups 2 and 3 members are interesting targets for clarifying the evolution of subclade IVa bHLH transcription factors in Fabaceae.