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posted on 02.08.2019 by Xiangying Mao

The Mediator (Med) complex comprises about 30 subunits and is a transcriptional co-regulator in eukaryotic systems. The core Mediator complex, consisting of the head, middle and tail modules, functions as a bridge between transcription factors and basal transcription machinery, whereas the CDK8 kinase module can attenuate Mediator’s ability to function as either a co-activator or co-repressor. Many Arabidopsis Mediator subunit has been functionally characterized, which reveals critical roles of Mediator in many aspects of plant growth and development, responses to biotic and abiotic stimuli, and metabolic homeostasis. Traditional genetic and biochemical approaches laid the foundation for our understanding of Mediator function, but recent transcriptomic and metabolomic studies have provided deeper insights into how specific subunits cooperate in the regulation of plant metabolism. In Chapter 1, we highlight recent developments in the investigation of Mediator and plant metabolism, with emphasis on the large-scale biology studies of med mutants.

We previously found that MED5, an Arabidopsis Mediator tail subunit, is required for maintaining phenylpropanoid homeostasis. A semi-dominant mutation (reduced epidermal fluorescence 4-3, ref4-3) that causes a single amino acid substitution in MED5b functions as a strong suppressor of the pathway, leading to decreased soluble phenylpropanoid accumulation, reduced lignin content and dwarfism. In contrast, loss of MED5a and MED5b (med5) results in increased levels of phenylpropanoids. In Chapter 2, we present our finding that ref4-3 requires CDK8, a Mediator kinase module subunit, to repress plant growth even though the repression of phenylpropanoid metabolism in ref4-3 is CDK8-independent. Transcriptome profiling revealed that salicylic acid (SA) biosynthesis genes are up-regulated in a CDK8-dependent manner in ref4-3, resulting in hyper-accumulation of SA and up-regulation of SA response genes. Both growth repression and hyper-accumulation of SA in ref4-3 require CDK8 with intact kinase activity, but these SA phenotypes are not connected with dwarfing. In contrast, mRNA-sequencing (RNA-seq) analysis revealed the up-regulation of a DNA J protein-encoding gene in ref4-3, the elimination of which partially suppresses dwarfing. Together, our study reveals genetic interactions between Mediator tail and kinase module subunits and enhances our understanding of dwarfing in phenylpropanoid pathway mutants.

In Chapter 3, we characterize other phenotypes of med5 and ref4-3, and find that in addition to the up-regulated phenylpropanoid metabolism, med5 show other interesting phenotypes including hypocotyl and petiole elongation as well as accelerated flowering, all of which are known collectively as the shade avoidance syndrome (SAS), suggesting that MED5 antagonize shade avoidance in wild-type plants. In contrast, the constitutive ref4-3 mutant protein inhibits the process, and the stunted growth of ref4-3 mutants is substantially alleviated by the light treatment that triggers SAS. Moreover, ref4-3 mimics the loss-of-function med5 mutants in maintaining abscisic acid (ABA) levels under both normal and drought growth conditions. The phenotypic characterization of med5 mutants extend our understanding of the role of Mediator in SAS and ABA signaling, providing further insight into the physiological and metabolic responses that require MED5.

In Chapter 4, we explore the function of MED5 and CDK8 in gene expression regulation by investigating the effect of mutations in Mediator including med5, ref4-3, cdk8-1 and ref4-3 cdk8-1 on genome-wide Pol II distribution. We find that loss of MED5 results in loss of Pol II occupancy at many target genes. In contrast, many genes show enriched Pol II levels in ref4-3, some of which overlap with those showing reduced Pol II occupancy in med5. In addition, Pol II occupancy is significantly reduced when CDK8 is disrupted in ref4-3. Our results help to narrow down the direct gene targets of MED5 and identify genes that may be closely related to the growth deficiency observed in ref4-3 plants, providing a critical foundation to elucidate the molecular function of Mediator in transcription regulation.


Control of Carbon Allocation in Phenylpropanoid Metabolism

Basic Energy Sciences

Find out more...

Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP)

Bird Stair Research Fellowship


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy



Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Clint Chapple

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Vikki Weake

Additional Committee Member 2

Barbara Golden

Additional Committee Member 3

Tesfaye Mengiste