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A large deletion conferring pale green leaves of maize



The structural basis of chloroplast and the regulation of chloroplast biogenesis remain largely unknown in maize. Gene mutations in these pathways have been linked to the abnormal leaf color phenotype observed in some mutants. Large scale structure variants (SVs) are crucial for genome evolution, but few validated SVs have been reported in maize and little is known about their functions though they are abundant in maize genomes.


In this research, a spontaneous maize mutant, pale green leaf-shandong (pgl-sd), was studied. Genetic analysis showed that the phenotype of pale green leaf was controlled by a recessive Mendel factor mapped to a 156.8-kb interval on the chromosome 1 delineated by molecular markers gy546 and gy548. There were 7 annotated genes in this interval. Reverse transcription quantitative PCR analysis, SV prediction, and de novo assembly of pgl-sd genome revealed that a 137.8-kb deletion, which was verified by Sanger sequencing, might cause the pgl-sd phenotype. This deletion contained 5 annotated genes, three of which, including Zm00001eb031870, Zm00001eb031890 and Zm00001eb031900, were possibly related to the chloroplast development. Zm00001eb031870, encoding a Degradation of Periplasmic Proteins (Deg) homolog, and Zm00001eb031900, putatively encoding a plastid pyruvate dehydrogenase complex E1 component subunit beta (ptPDC-E1-β), might be the major causative genes for the pgl-sd mutant phenotype. Plastid Degs play roles in protecting the vital photosynthetic machinery and ptPDCs provide acetyl-CoA and NADH for fatty acid biosynthesis in plastids, which were different from functions of other isolated maize leaf color associated genes. The other two genes in the deletion were possibly associated with DNA repair and disease resistance, respectively. The pgl-sd mutation decreased contents of chlorophyll a, chlorophyll b, carotenoids by 37.2%, 22.1%, and 59.8%, respectively, and led to abnormal chloroplast. RNA-seq revealed that the transcription of several other genes involved in the structure and function of chloroplast was affected in the mutant.


It was identified that a 137.8-kb deletion causes the pgl-sd phenotype. Three genes in this deletion were possibly related to the chloroplast development, which may play roles different from that of other isolated maize leaf color associated genes.


Mutants with the phenotype of abnormal leaf color have been reported frequently, most of which can be grouped as albina, xantha, alboviridis, viridis, and girina [15]. In general, these phenotypes were related to mutation of genes in the pathway of chlorophyll synthesis and degradation or genes directly involved in the chloroplast biogenesis. For example, green genes identified in Arabidopsis [1], and rice genes Ygl1 [51], Ygl2 [8], Ygl3 [46], Ygl7 [10] and Ygl80 [45] are responsible for chlorophyll metabolism, while Arabidopsis genes Apg1 ( [37], Cao [23], Egy1 [7] and Var3 [36], and rice genes Ygl138(T) [55] and Vyl [11] encode proteins for the development of chloroplast. In maize, more than 200 genes/Quantitative Trait Loci (QTL) associated with leaf color have been recorded in maizeGDB database [54], including 8 isolated genes, Elm1, Elm2, Chr.1-ClpP5, Oy1, Oy2, Vyl, Ygl-1, and Zb7. Elm1 encodes a phytochromobilin synthase. elm1, a mutant of single base transition of Elm1, was deficient in phytochrome response and had a lower content of chlorophyll than wild plants under white light condition [39, 40]. Elm2, encoding a heme oxygenase, was also involved in phytochrome biosynthesis. elm2 with a 21-bp deletion in Elm2 showed yellow green leaves [42]. Vyl and Chr.1-ClpP5 were a pair of ClpP5 homologs. a 141-bp insertion in Vyl led to virescent yellow-like leaves [52]. Oy1 encodes the subunit I of magnesium chelatase in the chlorophyll biosynthesis pathway. Semi-dominant oy1 was a chlorophyll deficient mutant [41]. Oy2 possibly encodes chelatase subunit D and a point mutation of this gene likely conferred the yellow leaves of maize [54]. Ygl-1 possibly encodes a cpSRP43 protein required to target light-harvesting chlorophyll protein to thylakoid membrane. ygl-1, a mutant of single nucleotide deletion of Ygl-1, showed yellow-green leaves [14]. Zb7 is an IPP and DMAPP synthase involving in isoprenoid synthesis. A single nucleotide alteration of Zb7 decreased the biosynthesis of chlorophyll and carotenoid leading to transverse yellow-green leaf phenotype [32].

Though most of identified genomic variants were single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) or Indel polymorphisms (IDPs), large scale structure variants (SVs), classified as genome rearrangements typically larger than 100 bp [18], were also abundant in the crop genome as revealed in maize by genome sequence projects [28, 43]. SVs contributed to the adaptation of crops to environments and the variation source for breeding. For example, a 38.3-kb deletion in rice harbored grain number, plant height and heading date7 (Ghd7) [53], and a 254-kb deletion in soybean was associated with a low level of palmitic acid of seeds [13]. However, few SVs in maize have been verified with experiments and little is known about their biological functions. A 147-kb deletion identified in maize containing maize wall-associated kinase (ZmWAK) resulted in susceptibility to the fungal disease head smut [58]. Han et al. [16] reported that a 5.16-Mb deletion led to a set of phenotypic abnormities, including reduced plant height, increased stomatal density, and rapid water losing in maize.

In this research, a natural maize mutant with pale green leaf, pale green leaf-shandong (pgl-sd), was studied. Map-based cloning revealed that a 137.8-kb deletion containing 5 genes in chromosome 1 of pgl-sd results in its abnormal leaf color.


Inheritance of leaf color of pgl-sd

The mutant pgl-sd had leaves with nearly white color at the base and pale green at the tip at seedling stages, but it exhibited pale green leaves at later growth stages (Fig. 1), a phenotype similar to that of B73vyl [52]. The mutant was shorter and had later anthesis and silking date relative to the three wild inbred lines, B73, Zheng58 and Qi319, but could grow to maturity and produce seeds.

Fig. 1
figure 1

The phenotype of pgl-sd. a seedlings of B73 (column 1), pgl-sd (column 2), Zheng58 (column 3), Qi319 (column 4). b seedlings of a mutant (left) and a wild plant (right) from B73/*2pgl-sd BC1 population. c adult plants of pgl-sd (left) and Qi319 (right) growing in the field

The F1 progeny of the crosses between pgl-sd with B73, Zheng58 or Qi319 showed green leaves and grew normally as the wild parents. Among a BC1 population of the cross between pgl-sd and B73, 41 of 98 individuals exhibited pgl-sd mutant phenotype. The ratio of the mutant to the wild-type was in agreement with a 1:1 segregation ratio (X2(1:1) = 2.61, P = 0.11). In a Zheng58/pgl-sd F2 population (Population 1), 26 mutant plants and 69 wild were observed, respectively (X2(1:3) = 0.28, and P = 0.59). These data suggested that the pgl-sd mutant phenotype was probably determined by a single recessive gene. These two populations were used for the initial mapping of pgl-sd.

At the fine mapping stage, we further investigated leaf color of 3635 individuals from a Zheng58/pgl-sd F2 population and 2521 plants from a Qi319/pgl-sd F2 population, respectively. A total of 598 plants in the former population and 405 in the latter expressed the mutant phenotype, respectively. The mutant frequencies of both populations were approximately 16%, which were significantly lower than expected 25%. In the BC1 population mentioned above, the mutant frequency was not significantly different from 50%, but it was closer to 40% (P = 0.71), which was consistent with the segregation ratio of 16 mutant to 84 wild type in the Zheng58/pgl-sd F2 population (X2(16:84) = 0.55, P = 0.45) and Qi319/pgl-sd F2 populations (X2(16:84) = 0.008, P = 0.92). We examined ears of Zheng58/pgl-sd F1 and that of Qi319/pgl-sd F1, but no obvious abortion of kernels were observed. In addition, no abnormality of F1 seeds germination or of F2 seedling establishment was found for these two crosses. Thus, we speculated that the mutation of pgl-sd could lead to some degree of abortion of gamete, which resulted in the observed segregation distortion.

Initial mapping of pgl-sd

Initially, 5 mutant and 5 wild plants from the B73/*2pgl-sd population were genotyped with polymorphic markers equally distributed across maize chromosomes along with the parent lines. With these markers, pgl-sd was located into a region around bin 1.05 and 1.06 of chromosome 1. Because of low diversity observed between pgl-sd and B73, we then used the Population 1 to further construct a linkage map encompassing the pgl-sd mutation with polymorphic simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers located in the two bins or nearby. pgl-sd was finally mapped into a 5.5-cM interval delimited by the closest markers umc1906 and umc1396 (Fig. 2a). With molecular markers developed at the fine mapping stage, this interval was further resolved by gy496 and gy489 in the long arm direction (Fig. 2a).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Mapping of pgl-sd. a linkage mapping of pgl-sd with Zheng58/pgl-sd F2 population (units = cM). b physical coordinates of markers on the chromosome 1 for fine mapping of pgl-sd with Qi319/pgl-sd F2 population based on RefGen_v5 (units = bp). The number of recombinant mutants between each marker and pgl-sd was showed in bracket following the marker. c genotypes of representative recombinants from the Qi319/pgl-sd F2 population. Black color indicates the pgl-sd genotype and white indicates heterozygous genotype. Codes of these plants from top to below are b3.08.01, b3.11.11, b3.67.09, b3.16.07, b3.31.07, b3.33.09, b2.11.09, b2.26.02, b1.67.10, b3.12.03, b1.13.09, b2.57.07, b3.01.18, and b1.66.10 respectively. d annotated genes in pgl-sd interval delimited by gy546 and gy548. e the deletion containing five genes in the pgl-sd

Fine mapping of pgl-sd

To fine mapping of pgl-sd, molecular makers umc2230 and umc1396 were used to identify recombinants between markers and pgl-sd (Fig. S1). Besides the 24 mutants from the Population1, other 591 mutants with no confused phenotype from the Zheng58/pgl-sd F2 were genotyped with the two markers. A total of 116 recombinants were obtained with one or both of the two markers loci carrying the allele(s) from the wild parent Zheng58. These recombinants were further genotyped with markers between umc2230 and umc1396 to reveal their detailed structure in this region. To increase resolution of the molecular map, we searched MaizeGDB database ( and literatures for SSR or IDP markers possibly located in the target region. SSRs identified in the sequence of these region were also used to design molecular markers. These markers were screened for polymorphism between pgl-sd and B73, Zheng58, or Qi319. pgl-sd was further delimited to a ~ 6.4-Mb region enclosed by gy524 (at the position of 173.7 Mb on chromosome 1 of Zm-B73-REFERENCE-GRAMENE-4.0 (RefGen_v4)) and gy541 (180.0 Mb), with 7 recombinants between gy524 and pgl-sd and 2 between gy541 and pgl-sd being identified, respectively (Fig. S1). Recombination events were also identified by another SSR marker gy533 originated from the MISA search, which was located at 176.5 Mb on chromosome 1 of the RefGen_v4. But gy533 was not placed on the physical map because of the difficulty to distinguish the polymorphism.

Then, 387 mutants from Qi319/pgl-sd F2 were screened for recombinants with umc1076 and gy502 selected according to the genetic map constructed with Zheng58/pgl-sd F2. A total of 92 recombinants were obtained. pgl-sd was delimited to a region with 6.7-Mb physical distance delineated by the closest markers gy521 (171.7 Mb) and gy527 (177.8 Mb) originating from a literature (Jie et al. 2013) (Fig. 1). However, this interval could not be further resolved due to lack of more polymorphic markers.

To overcome the shortage of polymorphic markers, pgl-sd genome was sequenced on Illumina platform and the resulted reads were aligned to RefGen_v4 along with downloaded sequence reads of Zheng58 and Qi319 to identify variants. IDPs with length difference less than 4 bp between pgl-sd and Zheng58 or Qi319 in the interval delimited by gy524 (173.7 Mb) and gy533 (176.5 Mb) were screened for mapping pgl-sd. It was interesting that only 3 variants between Zheng58 and pgl-sd were obtained in this region, while 21 were gotten between Qi319 and pgl-sd under this threshold. We designed primers for 7 IDPs, 6 of which successfully detected the expected polymorphisms between Qi319 and pgl-sd, but none did between Zheng58 and pgl-sd as anticipated. With these markers, pgl-sd was further mapped to a 155.8-kb region bracketed by gy546 and gy548, with gy547 cosegregating with it (Fig. 1b). 3 recombinants between gy546 and pgl-sd as well as 2 between gy548 and pgl-sd were observed, respectively. Coordinates for gy546, gy547 and gy548 were 176.20 Mb, 176.34 Mb, 176.35 Mb on chromosome 1 of the RefGen_v4. There were only 2 annotated genes in this region including Zm00001d031078 and Zm00001d031079. However, careful inspection of this region revealed a large gap existing in the interval of the assembly of RefGen_v4, while no gap was present in the corresponding regions bracketed by gy546 and gy548 of both Zm-B73-REFERENCE-NAM-5.0 (RefGen_v5) and B73 RefGen_v3 (RefGen_v3). We aligned the sequence of target interval of RefGen_v5 with that of RefGen_v3 by using MUMer and found that these two assemblies agreed well with each other in this region (Fig. S2). According to the annotation of RefGen_v5, an unmapped contig B73V4_ctg98 from RefGen_v4 was found sharing high identity with the sequence of the target region of RefGen_v5. This was the reason why RefGen_v5 was used as reference to give physical positions of markers in the fine mapping of pgl-sd finally (Fig. 2 b).

There were 8 annotated genes in the interval of RefGen_v5, which included Zm00001eb031850, Zm00001eb031860, Zm00001eb031870, Zm00001eb031880, Zm00001eb031890, Zm00001eb031900, Zm00001eb031910 and Zm00001eb031920. Among these 8 genes, Zm00001eb031920 was in a tandem array with Zm00001eb031910, and both of them corresponded to the same annotated gene Zm00001d031079 in RefGen_v4. Therefore, only Zm00001eb031910 was considered in further studies for these two gene models. Marker gy547 was located at the interval between Zm00001eb31900 and Zm00001eb31910. Then, we reanalyzed the sequence reads of pgl-sd, Zheng58 and Qi319 using RefGen_v5 as the reference genome in order to find more variants for developing markers to saturate the target region. Intriguingly, genotype information was missing for pgl-sd at many variant positions in this region reported by GATK [35], which was confirmed by the observation that there were no mapped reads for pgl-sd in many parts of the region. Three new markers were obtained, including gy550, gy553, gy554. gy550 was designed from Zm00001eb031850, the gene nearest to gy546 in the target interval and gy553 was from the sequence between Zm00001eb31880 and Zm00001eb31881. gy554 was developed from the sequence between Zm00001eb31900 and Zm00001eb31910 like gy547, but it was a little closer to gy548 than gy547. However, all of the three markers cosegregated with pgl-sd (Fig. 2), with gy553 as a dominant marker having no specific amplification in mutant plants. These results indicated that it was likely to be difficult to further resolve the region around pgl-sd mutation though recombinants could be found between gy546 and gy548.

A large deletion in pgl-sd leading to the phenotype of pgl-sd mutation

Among the 7 annotated genes in the target region, Zm00001eb031870/Zm00001d000230 had At4G18370 as the ortholog in Arabidopsis ( which encodes Degradation of periplasmic proteins 5 (Deg5), a protein located in chloroplast thylakoid lumen [44]. It was the only gene which had its high expression present in only leaves according to the RNA-seq expression data in maizeGDB ( (Fig. S3). Marker gy562, developed from Zm00001eb031870, cosegregated with pgl-sd (Fig. 2b). So we speculated that Zm00001eb031870 was the candidate gene responsible for pgl-sd. To test the hypothesis, reverse transcription PCRs (RT-PCRs) / reverse transcription quantitative PCRs (RT-qPCRs) were conducted to examine the expression of these 7 genes in leaves of pgl-sd and the wild line Qi319 (Table 1). All primer pairs designed from Zm00001eb031910/Zm00001d031079 failed to specifically amplify products of expected size. The expression of Zm00001eb031850/Zm00001d031078 was too low to be detected in leaf, but it was high in the root of B73 (data not shown), which was consistent with RNA-Seq expression data in maizeGDB ( As expected, the transcription of Zm00001eb031870 was significantly down-regulated in pgl-sd relative to Qi319. However, the expression of Zm00001eb031880/Zm00001d000229 was detected in all lines (B73, Zheng58 and Qi319) except pgl-sd, and the expression levels of all the other 3 genes were also significantly lower in pgl-sd than that in Qi319 (Table 1).

Table 1 RT-qPCR analysis of candidate genes for pgl-sd

We then tried to amplify the full-length genome sequence and the coding sequence (CDS) of Zm00001eb031870 in pgl-sd and Qi319 with the primer pair gy573. However, PCR products of expected size were only obtained from Qi319 (Fig. 3a). Impressively, same results were gotten with three additional primer pairs designed from different parts of this gene (data not shown), indicating that Zm00001eb031870 was possibly deleted in pgl-sd. Combining these results with the gene expression analysis, gy553 being a dominant marker, and many missing data for pgl-sd at variant positions in the target interval together, we suspected that a large deletion might exist in the target genome region of the mutant. Then, we scrutinized regions beyond Zm00001eb031870 in the whole interval by developing additional primer pairs, including all the other 6 genes and intergenic regions following Zm00001eb031850 and preceding Zm00001eb031910. All these primer pairs amplified products with expected size from Qi319 but did not from pgl-sd, except gy580 derived from the region between Zm00001eb031850 and Zm00001eb031860 and gy586 from Zm00001eb031890, which generally agreed with our hypothesis.

Fig. 3
figure 3

The structure variation in pgl-sd. White triangles indicate expected PCR products. a amplification of Zm00001eb031870 with the primer pair gy573. b, c, validation of the deletion in pgl-sd with gy598 and gy599, respectively. d sequence alignment of gy598 amplificon from pgl-sd with the target region of RefGen_V5. M, molecular weight marker. For 1 and 2, genomic DNA of pgl-sd and Q319 were used, respectively. For 3 and 4, cDNA of pgl-sd and Q319 were used, respectively

To further validate this hypothesis and determine the precise position of the possible deletion, Manta was used to detect signals of SVs in the targeted region with the sequence read mapping result of pgl-sd. However, no meaningful information was attained. Then we tried Breakdance. Fortunately, a 137,794-bp deletion starting from 178,338,866 bp and ending at 178,476,727 bp on the chromosome 1 of RefGen_v5 was identified with 4 supported reads. To catch more supported information, we assembled sequence reads of pgl-sd by using SOAPdenovo and found a 8204-bp contig C52375234 (data s1) matching the deletion-supporting reads from the SV analysis using Breakdancer. Blastn search with C52375234 against RefGen_v5 demonstrated that its right part (from 1 to 6,010 bp of its reverse complement) matches the region from 178,332,925 to 178,338,934 of B73 chromosome 1 completely and its left part (from 6,009 to 8,024 bp of its reverse complement) aligned with the region from 178,476,727 to 178,478,922 of B73 chromosome 1 with 100% identity, repectively, suggesting a deletion starting from 178,338,935 bp and ending at 178,476,729 bp on the chromosome 1 in pgl-sd compared with B73, which was consistent with the prediction from Breakdancer but with a little difference at the exact starting position. The primer pair gy598, flanking the predicted deletion, did amplify products of expected size from genome DNA of pgl-sd but did not from Qi319 due to too larger size of the segment flanked by gy598 (Fig. 3b). Similar results were brought for the primer pair gy599 which was internal to gy598 though it demonstrated worse specificity than gy598 (Fig. 3c). Sequencing amplicons from pgl-sd with gy598 resulted an anticipated 6,119-bp sequence, which matched the C52375234 with 100% identity. Thus, these data confirmed our hypothesis (Fig. 3d, Data S1).

Mechanisms for the phenotype of pgl-sd

Because pgl-sd mutants exhibited pale green leaves, we examined whether contents of chlorophyll a (Chla), chlorophyll b (Chlb) and carotenoids (Car) were changed in pgl-sd. It was detected that contents of all of three pigments were significantly reduced in the mutant compared with the wild-type at early seedling stages (P < 0.01) of the B73/2*pgl-sd population (Fig. 4). The content of Chla, Chlb and Car of the mutant was 62.8%, 77.9% and 40.2% compared to the wild-type, respectively. Thus, the mutation of pgl-sd reduced the accumulation of these major classes of photosynthetic pigments.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Differences of leaf photosynthetic pigment contents between mutants and wild plants. Plants were sampled from B73/*2pgl-sd BC1 population. Data was showed as mean ± sd (n = 8 for mutants and 9 for the wild-type, respectively). ** indicates P < 0.01

Further, scrutinization of seedling leaves with electron microscopy revealed that chloroplasts in mesophyll cells of the mutant were larger in size than that of the wild-type (Fig. 5). Chloroplasts of mesophyll cells in the mutant also displayed irregular shapes and had small granal stacks compared with that in the wild-type. These results suggested that the pgl-sd mutation likely affected the development of chloroplast directly, which then resulted in the reduction of photosynthetic pigments accumulation.

Fig. 5
figure 5

The structure change of chloroplasts in the mutant

RNA-Seq analysis was also conducted to divulge effects of the mutation of pgl-sd on gene expression in the developing leaves. In the differentially expressed gene (DEG) analysis, a total of 345 genes were identified under the threshold mentioned in the methods. No over-represented Gene Ontology (GO) items were observed with adjusted P-value < 0.05 in GO enrichment analysis of DEGs, but 82 items were enriched under threshold of P-value < 0.05. The top three significantly enriched items classified as Biological Process (BP) were GO:0009405 (pathogenesis), GO:0009750 (response to fructose) and GO:0051341 (regulation of oxidoreductase activity), respectively. The top three items classified as Cell Component (CC) included GO:0032040 (small-subunit processome), GO:0015629 (actin cytoskeleton), GO:0000275 (mitochondrial proton-transporting ATP synthase complex-catalytic core F(1)). The top three items of Molcular Function (MF) comprised GO:0016831 (carboxy-lyase activity), GO:0004612 (phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase (ATP) activity) and GO:0008483 (transaminase activity). No information clearly related to the trait pale green leaf was obtained from these data.

Among genes located into the deletion region, Zm00001eb031870/Zm00001d000230, Zm00001eb031880/Zm00001d000229 and Zm00001eb031900/Zm00001d000227 were expressed in the wild-type but no expression was detected for them in the mutant as expected (Table 2). However, expression of Zm00001eb031860/Zm00001d000231 was detected in the mutant at a low level in comparison with the wild-type. Similarly, the expression of Zm00001eb031890/Zm00001d000227 was also observed in the mutant though it was significantly lower than that of the wild-type (Table 2). These data coincided with the results of RT-qPCR. It was possible that the expression of highly homologous genes interfered with the exact detection of Zm00001eb031860 and Zm00001eb031890. In fact, Zm00001eb031890 shared high identity to Zm00001eb159540 and the cDNA of Zm00001eb159540 was amplified with a primer pairs designed from Zm00001eb031890 (data not shown).

Table 2 RNA-seq analysis of the expression of genes located in the pgl-sd deletion

Zm00001eb031860/Zm00001d000231 could be assigned to GO:0003678, classified as a MF item with the description of DNA helicase. Search against the InterPro protein signature databases ( showed that Zm00001eb031860 had a Pif1-like helicase domain. It was found that both GO:0031570 and GO:0044774 in the BP, with the description of “DNA integrity check point”, were enriched with P-value = 0.07, indicating that deletion of Zm00001eb031860 might affect the DNA repair system.

Zm00001eb031870/Zm00001d000230 could be assigned to GO:0009535, a CC GO item with the description of “the pigmented membrane of a chloroplast thylakoid”. Zm00001d008209, a gene assigned to GO:0009535, was significantly up-regulated at the transcriptional level in the mutant compared with the wild-type. According to the annotation of maizeGDB, Zm00001eb031870 might be involved in photosystem II (PSII) repair. The GO item GO:0009654 in CC, with description “photosystem II oxygen evolving complex”, was enriched with P-value = 0.07. 2 DEGs were gouped to this GO item, among which the expression of Zm00001d049390 was not detected in the mutant. In addition, 2 genes assigned to GO:0009765 with the description of “photosynthesis, light harvesting” was differentially expressed in mutants compared with the wild-type. It was of note that both Zm00001eb031890/Zm00001d000228 and Zm00001eb031900/Zm00001d000227 might participate in chloroplast development too. Search against InterPro database revealed that Zm00001eb031890/Zm00001d000228 had sequence similarity to the pthr10566 which was described as “Protein Activity of BC1 Complex Kinase 8, Choloplastic”. Zm00001eb031890 was grouped to GO:0009941 (“chloroplast envelope”) and GO:0046467 (“membrane lipid biosynthetic process”). Zm00001eb031900/Zm00001d000227 could also be assigned to GO:0009941 and it was homologous to AT1G30120 which encodes a part of plastid pyruvate dehydrogenase complex.

Search with Conserved Domain Architecture Retrieval Tool (CDART) ( demonstrated that Zm00001eb031880/Zm00001d000229 had sequence similarity to a cotton fiber-like protein (DUF761). In Arabidopsis, DUF761-containing proteins likely had a role in plant development and disease resistance [56]. It was interesting that GO:0009405, a BP item with description of “pathogenesis”, was the most significantly over-represented item (P-value = 0.0008). In addition, items GO:0010112 (“regulation of systemic acquired resistance”) and GO:0009870 (“resistance gene-dependent”) in the BP were also significantly enriched.

Taken together, the deletion in pgl-sd affected its chloroplast development, which might lead to the decrease of photosynthetic pigment contents in leaves. But not many DEGs and no high enriched GO items were identified in our research. The possible reason might be that the RNA samples were prepared from plants of a B73/2*pgl-sd population. The genetic background differences between individuals resulted in high variations of gene expressions within the mutant or wild pools, which reduced the power for the DEG detection. But the deletion including three genes possible related to the structure and function of chloroplast affected the expression of several genes involved in the structure and function of chloroplast. Besides these, the mutation might also affect the DNA repair system and the disease resistance as well.


To date, 8 green-leaf-color genes have been isolated in maize, which included Elm1, Elm2, Chr.1-ClpP5, Oy1, Oy2, Vyl, Ygl-1, Zb7 [14, 32, 41, 42, 52, 54], none of which was located in the deletion reported here, indicating that pgl-sd involved in leaf color-related genes different from those reported. There were 5 annotated genes located in this deletion according to the annotation of B73 genome (, 3 of which might be related to structure and function of chloroplast, including Zm00001eb031870/Zm00001d000230, Zm00001eb031890/Zm00001d000228 and Zm00001eb031900/Zm00001d000227. In Arabidopsis protein database (, Zm00001eb031870 shared highest identity with At4g18370, known as Deg5. In Arabidopsis, 4 Degs are located in chloroplast, three of which, Deg1, Deg5 and Deg8, are present in thylakoid lumen [44]. Aarabidosis mutant deg1 was small, and had thin and pale green leaves compared with the wild-type [4, 20], a phenotype sharing by pgl-sd. But deg1 flowered earlier than the wild-type whereas pgl-sd flowered later. But loss of function of Deg5, the ortholog of Zm00001eb031870, in Aarabidosis, has no visible effects on normal conditions [4, 44]. tcm5, a rice Deg mutant, also exhibited albino phenotype and defective chloroplasts [57]. Zm00001eb031900/Zm00001d000227 was orthologous to AT1G30120 which putatively encoded a plastid pyruvate dehydrogenase complex E1 component subunit beta (ptPDC-E1-β). The ptPDC provides acetyl-CoA and NADH for fatty acid biosynthesis in plastids [5, 21].The floury endosperm19 (flo19), a ptPDC-E1-α1 mutant in rice, showed low plant height and slow growth throughout the entire growth period rative to the wild-type, a phenotype reminiscent of pgl-sd, in addition to opaque of the interior endosperm [25]. It was surprising to observed that Zm00001eb031870 and Zm00001eb031900 were the only two core genes revealed by pan gene analysis of the deletion region with data of MaizeGDB ( (data not showed). These data suggested that Zm00001eb031870 and Zm00001eb031900 might be the major causative genes for the observed phenotype of pgl-sd. However whether the deletion of Zm00001eb031890 contributes to specificity of the phenotype of pgl-sd remains to be elucidated.

Besides the aforementioned three genes, the pgl-sd deletion region contained Zm00001eb031860 and Zm00001eb031880, which were possibly related to DNA repair system and plant disease resistance, respectively. Though limited information was obtained from our RNA-seq data, it was observed that transcription of some genes in related pathways were affected in the mutant. But the traits we examined only included plant height, leaf color, and plant growth. Thus, it is necessary to find a appropriate set of traits to confirm the possible effects of the deletion of these two genes.

SVs are crucial for genome evolution and abundant in genomes, especially for species like maize, which, as an ancient tetraploid, experienced many times of duplication events, but few validated SVs have been reported in maize. The finding of the deletion of pgl-sd provided valuable information for functions and mechanisms of SVs in maize genome. Several mechanisms have been proposed for occurrence of SVs, including non-allelic homologous recombination (NAHR), microhomologous recombination (MHR), non-homologous end joining (NHEJ), microhomology-mediated end join (MHMEJ) and microhomology-mediated break-induced replication (MMBIR), etc.[6, 17]. NAHR requires long stretches of homologous sequences flanking the genomic region of SVs. MHMEJ or MMBIR is characterized by short homologous sequences (< 70 bp) at the break-joint position, whereas MMBIR was prone to result in complex SVs [6, 17]. For pgl-sd, no long homologous segments were observed flanking the deletion, but a 4-bp same nucleotide, A, were present at the break-joining point (Fig. 3), indicating that MHMEJ might lead to the deletion.


In this study, we identified a 137.8-kb deletion through map-based cloning of pgl-sd, in which no maize leaf color associated genes were reported before. This deletion led to abnormality of chloroplast development, reduced contents of photosynthetic pigments in leaves, and affected the expression of genes involved in the structure and function of chloroplast. Three genes in this deletion were possibly related to the plastid development with roles different from that of other isolated maize leaf color associated genes.

As Zm00001eb031870, an ortholog of Arabidopsis Deg5, and Zm00001eb031900, putatively coding ptPDC-E1-β, were the only core genes in the identified deletion, the mutation effects on maize phenotype suggested these two genes may be necessary for normal maize development. The reports on the function of Degs and ptPDCs in other plants also point out the value of exploring the use of both genes in breeding maize varieties with higher yield potential and better stress tolerance to extreme environments, especially characterized by high temperature and light, in the future.


Plant materials and phenotyping

The spontaneous mutant pgl-sd was isolated from a breeding population. In consideration of possible effects of genetic backgrounds on phenotypic expression of the mutation of pgl-sd, the mutant plants were crossed with three elite wild inbred lines, including B73, Zheng58 and Qi319. B73 and Zheng58 belong to the Stiff Stalk group, and Qi319 is a line derived from mixed origin. The BC1 population, B73/*2pgl-sd, was developed by backcrossing B73/pgl-sd F1 individuals with pgl-sd. F2 populations were created for the other two crosses.

Phenotypes of the mutant pgl-sd, the three wild inbred lines and their F1 progeny were investigated in green house at seedling stages (from emergence stage, V0, to vegetative phase 3 stage, V3), and in the field at all growth stages. For segregation analysis, plants of BC1, F2 populations and their parents were grown in plastic trays in a green house and leaf color was evaluated at stages from V0 to V3.

Molecular markers development and genotyping

SSR and IDP markers were retrieved from maizeGDB database ( for mapping of pgl-sd. At the fine mapping stage, IDP and SSR markers listed in the two papers [19, 29] were used, but primer pairs were redesigned in most cases. The nucleotide sequence around the target region of RefGen_v4 were also used to search for potential SSR with MISA [2] for fine mapping of pgl-sd.

At the final stage of the mapping study, pgl-sd was resequenced to develop more IDP markers. Leaf samples of pgl-sd seedlings were used for genomic DNA extraction. A 350-bp insertion size library was constructed and sequenced with Illumina NovaSeq6000 at Novogene (Tianjin, China), yielding a total of 276,713,444 150-bp paired-end reads (41.12G base). Sequence data of Zheng58 (PRJEB30082) and Qi319 (PRJNA609577) were download from EBI ( Reads with poor quality was filtered with Trimmomatic [3] and evaluated with FastQC ( Clean reads were mapped to the RefGen_v4 or RefGen_v5 by using BWA mem [26] with default parameters. The mapped reads were sorted with SAMtools (Li et al. 2009) and marked duplication with picard (, then subjected to GATK (HaplotypeCallerfunction) [35]) for variant calling. Raw indels were filtered with expression "QD < 2.0 || FS > 200.0 || ReadPosRankSum < -20.0". Primers were designed using Primer3 [38] and synthesized at Sangon (Qingdao, China). Primer information for markers used for genotyping and other analyses in this study was listed in (Table 3).

Table 3 Primers used in the study

PCR amplifications were performed using TransGen (Beijing, China) EasyTaq DNA Polymerase for page with annealing temperature being set to 55 centigrade. PCR products were separated with electrophoresis on 8% (W/V) polyacrylamide gel with a acrylamide to bisacrylamide ratio of 19:1 (W/W) or 39:1.

Linkage map construction

A linkage map was constructed with MAPMAKER 3.0b [24] in the initial mapping. Linkage groups were determined with a minimum logarithm of odds (LOD) score of 3.0 and max distance 50 cM. Recombination frequency was computed with Haldane’s mapping function. Linkage maps were draw with MapChart [47].

Detection and validation of SVs

Mapping data of genome sequencing reads for pgl-sd, Zheng58 and Qi319 based on RefGen_v5 were used to detect SVs in pgl-sd compared with B73 by using both Manta [9] and Breakdancer [12], respectively. The genome assembly of pgl-sd was performed by using SOAPdenovo (SOAPdenovo-63, with K being set to 63) [33] with cleaned reads subjected to duplication removing. The final assembly was utilized to confirm possible structure variants predicted by the software aforementioned when necessary. PCRs for experimental SV validation were conducted with Vazyme (Nanjing, China) Phanta Flash Master Mix following the factory’s manual and PCR products were separated with 1% (W/V) agarose gel.

RNA extraction, reverse transcription and RT-qPCR analysis

The first leaves of pgl-sd, B73, Zheng58, Qi319 plants at V2 stages were harvested for total RNA extraction by using a Aidlab's plant RNA extraction kit RN09 (Aidlab, Beijing, China). RNA was reverse transcribed to cDNA using Accurate Biology's RT Kit (AG accurate Biology, Changsha, China). RT-qPCR was performed with a SYBR Green Real-Time PCR Master Mix (Accurate Biology, Changsha, China) using The Applied Biosystems 7500 Real-Time PCR System (ThermFisher Scientific) following the comparative CT experiment protocol of the manufacturer. Experiments were performed with three independent RNA samples and three technical replicates and folypolyglutamate synthase (FPGS) was used as the reference gene [34]. Relative gene expression was calculated as described by Livak and Schmittgen [30].

Measurement of chlorophyll and carotenoid contents

Because the population from which pgl-sd originated was not available, plants from the B73/*2pgl-sd population were used in the leaf pigment measurement as well as microscopy analysis and RNA-seq. Leaves of plants at V2-V4 stages (approximately 200 mg fresh weight for each plant) were cut into pieces and then submerged in a 10-ml solution of 2:1 (V/V) 95% acetone to ethanol for 48 h at 26 °C under dark conditions. OD values of these extracts were measured with Nanodrop2000 (ThermFisher Scientific) at 663, 645, and 470 nm, respectively. Contents of Chla, Chlb, and Car were estimated as described by Guan et al.[14].

Transmission electron microscopy

Plants at V2 to V3 stages, which grew in a greenhouse, were used for transmission electron microscopy analysis. Sample sections were prepared according to the description of Guan et al. [14] and observed using a Hitachi transmission electron microscope H-7500.

RNA-Seq Analysis

Leaves of plants at growth stages from V2 to V4 were harvested for RNA-Seq analysis. Six mutants or six wild plants were pooled together as one biological sample for one phenotype group and three independent samples were prepared for each phenotype group. Sequencing was performed at Novogene (Tianjin, China). Clean reads were mapped to RefGen_v4 using Hisat [22]. DEGs between the mutant and the wild group were determined with adjusted P-value < 0.2 and fold change > 2 using the R package DESeq2 [31]. GO enrichment analysis of DEGs was implemented by using the R package clusterProfiler [50] with maize-GAMER used as the GO annotation [49].

Statistical and graph drawing soft

All data in the work were analyzed with R ( and visualized with R package ggplot2 [48] except otherwise mentioned.

Availability of data and materials

All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article and its supplementary information files. The sequencing data are available at NCBI SRA database under the project of PRJNA823837.



Biological Process




Cell Component


Coding sequence


Chlorophyll a


Chlorophyll b


Degradation of periplasmic protein


Differentially Expressed Gene


Expected number of fragments per kb of transcript sequences per Mb sequenced


Gene Ontology


Indel polymorphism


Molcular Function


Pale green leaf-shandong


Plastid pyruvate dehydrogenase complex


Plastid pyruvate dehydrogenase complex E1 component subunit beta


Quantitative Trait Loci


B73 RefGen_v3






Reverse transcription PCR


Reverse transcription quantitative PCR


Single nucleotide polymorphism


Large scale structure variant


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We thank the anonymous reviewer for his comments on the section of methods in our manuscript and the editors for their suggestions and corrections on the English language use.


This work was supported by Science Fundation of Shandong Province for Youth (ZR2020QC105)

Science Fundation of Shandong Province for Youth,ZR2020QC105,Bingying Leng

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CM, XL, HZ and GY conceived this research; GY, HZ and CM completed most of experiments; BL, BC, JS, ZY, HG, and WC participated in the experiments; GY wrote the manuscript; CM and HZ revised the manuscript; all authors reviewed the this submission.

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Correspondence to Xia Liu or Chunhua Mu.

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Yao, G., Zhang, H., Leng, B. et al. A large deletion conferring pale green leaves of maize. BMC Plant Biol 23, 360 (2023).

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