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Diversification of plant SUPPRESSOR OF MAX2 1 (SMAX1)-like genes and genome-wide identification and characterization of cotton SMXL gene family



Strigolactones (SLs) are a recently discovered class of plant hormones. SUPPRESSOR OF MAX2 1 (SMAX1)-like proteins, key component of the SL signaling pathway, have been studied extensively for their roles in regulating plant growth and development, such as plant branching. However, systematic identification and functional characterization of SMXL genes in cotton (Gossypium sp.), an important fiber and oil crop, has rarely been conducted.


We identified 210 SMXL genes from 21 plant genomes and examined their evolutionary relationships. The structural characteristics of the SMXL genes and their encoded proteins exhibited both consistency and diversity. All plant SMXL proteins possess a conserved Clp-N domain, P-loop NTPase, and EAR motif. We identified 63 SMXL genes in cotton and classified these into four evolutionary branches. Gene expression analysis revealed tissue-specific expression patterns of GhSMXL genes, with some upregulated in response to GR24 treatment. Protein co-expression network analysis showed that GhSMXL6, GhSMXL7-1, and GhSMXL7-2 mainly interact with proteins functioning in growth and development, while virus-induced gene silencing revealed that GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 suppress the growth and development of axillary buds.


SMXL gene family members show evolutionary diversification through the green plant lineage. GhSMXL6/7–1/7–2 genes play critical roles in the SL signaling pathway, while GhSMXL1-1 and GhSMXL1-2 function redundantly in growth of axillary buds. Characterization of the cotton SMXL gene family provides new insights into their roles in responding to SL signals and in plant growth and development. Genes identified in this study could be used as the candidate genes for improvement of plant architecture and crop yield.

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Plant growth and development are regulated by a variety of endogenous and exogenous signals. Plant hormones are one of the major endogenous signals that can respond rapidly to environmental stimuli [1]. Strigolactones (SLs), initially found to be secreted from plant roots, act as a germination stimulant for weed seeds and also function in parasitic interactions [2, 3]. SLs are also involved in the development of algae and monocot and dicot plants [4, 5]. In plant growth, SLs regulate stem branching (tillering), leaf senescence, stem secondary wall thickening, photomorphogenesis, and stem elongation, among other [6,7,8,9]. Karrikin (KAR)/karrikin-like (KL) is a chemical signal discovered in wildfire smoke, that can effectively stimulate seed germination and seedling growth in Arabidopsis. KAR/KL activity depends on the F-box protein MORE AXILLARY BRANCHING (MAX2) in the Skp-Cullin-F-box (SCF) complex [10, 11]. The SCFMAX2 complex is involved in regulation of both the SL and KAR signaling pathways, and SL and KAR compounds exhibit partially similar molecular structures and share common biological functions [12]. The receptors for SL and KAR are α/β-hydrolases DWARF14 (D14) and KARRIKIN INSENSITIVE2 (KAI2), respectively [13]. Studies of Arabidopsis d14 and kai2 mutants have shown that MAX2 mediates the development processes regulated by SL and KAR/KL [13]. SUPPRESSOR OF MAX2 1 (SMAX1)-LIKE (SMXL) is a candidate target protein of the SCFMAX2 complex, which may act downstream of MAX2 and respond to KAR and SL signals [14].

A homolog of SMAX1, named D53, was identified in a SL-insensitive rice (Oryza sativa) mutant and acts as a negative regulator of tillering [15]. The rice D53 homologs, SMAX1, and SMXL6, 7, and 8, are negative regulators of stem branching in the SL signaling pathway, inhibiting the transmission of KAR and SL signals [14, 16]. Exogenous application of the SL analog GR24 leads to the ubiquitination and degradation of SMXL6, 7, and 8. A complex consisting of SMXL, MAX2, and TOPLESS-RELATED PROTEIN2 (TPR2) interacts with D14 in response to GR24 [17]. Treatment of Arabidopsis seedlings with GR24 promotes the degradation of SMAX1 and SMXL2 through the D14-SCFMAX2 signaling pathway, resulting in MAX2-dependent degradation of different members of the SMXL protein family [18]. The 26S proteasome specifically recognizes the SMXL protein and then is degrades it, thereby preventing the inhibitory effect of downstream transcription factor BRANCHED1 (BRC1) [19]. AtSMAX1 and AtSMXL2 regulate the development of roots and root hairs as well as the elongation of hypocotyls in Arabidopsis. The complex formed by SMAX1/SMXL2 and MAX2 binds to KAI2, which lead to SMAX1/SMXL2 ubiquitination and degradation of when perceiving KAR signals [20, 21]. Previous research has shown that SMXL6, SMXL7, and SMXL8 genes are regulated by KAI2 and are involved in the suppression of abscisic acid (ABA) by inhibiting the BRC1 gene through the ethylene response factor-associated amphiphilic repression (EAR) motif. This inhibition ultimately promotes branching in plants [22]. KAI2 is not capable of breaking down SMXL6, SMXL7, or SMXL8, but it is able to target SMXL2 [19]. Overall, these studies suggest that D53-like SMXL proteins are part of the SL signaling pathway and play a significant role in plant growth and development, particularly in regulating branching, by responding to KAR and SL signals.

The phosphatidylethanolamine binding proteins, FLOWERING LOCUS T (FT) and TERMINAL FLOWERING L (TFL1), antagonistically regulate flowering transition and the establishment of plant architecture [23]. In Arabidopsis, the FT gene and the bZIP transcription factor gene FD work together to respond to inductive photoperiods and overcome TFL1-FD inhibition of branching. The TFL1-FD complex is identified as a central regulator that restrains reproductive development and endogenous signaling pathways. Recent research has identified the TFL1-FD complex as a hub that plays key roles in inhibiting plant reproductive development [24]. Through large-scale ChIP-seq and functional analysis of downstream genes, TFL1 and FT have been shown to share several important target genes in multiple phytohormone pathways through competition for FD [25, 26]. Components of SL signaling, SMXL6 and SMXL8, may be target genes of the TFL1-FD complex [24]. In particular, TFL1 protein inhibits the target protein SMXL by competing with FT for FD, thus promoting axillary bud branching [24, 27].

Cotton (Gossypium sp.) is an important economic crop, and its fruiting branch length and branching pattern have a direct impact on plant architecture, mechanical harvesting, and yield [28,29,30]. Previous research has identified the involvement of the SL signal in lateral branch development of cotton. For example, ectopic expression of GhMAX2a and GhMAX2b rescues the dwarf and multi-branch phenotypes of max2 mutants in Arabidopsis [31]. Moreover, protein interaction studies have demonstrated that GhMAX2b interacts with Skp and other proteins to form a SCF-E3 complex, which plays a critical role in lateral branch development [32]. Silencing of GhMAX2 in cotton results in a dwarf plant phenotype, with slow growth and shortened fruiting internodes and fibers [31]. However, the biological functions and mechanisms of SMXL genes in the SL signaling pathway in cotton require further elucidation, and systematic identification and characterization of the SMXL gene family in cotton is still lacking.

In this study, we used a homology search to comprehensively explore the evolution of the SMXL gene family in 21 green plant species using recently updated genome sequences of Chlorophyta, Bryophyta, and angiosperm groups. We also focused on extensive identification and comparative analysis of SMXL gene family members in the genomes of tetraploid (Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense) and diploid (Gossypium raimondii, Gossypium arboreum, and Gossypium herbaceum) cotton genomes, performing comprehensive characterization. Our results lay a foundation for further research on the evolution and function of plant, especially cotton, SMXL genes.


Identification and evolution of plant SMXL gene family members

We identified 210 SMXL genes across 21 plant genomes by combining homology comparisons and structural domain searches (Table S1). Phylogenetic analysis of these species indicated that closely related plants were grouped together. Genome-wide analysis revealed a lack of encoded SMXL proteins in green algae, but four potential SMAX1 proteins in moss (Fig. 1a). The information of genome version used in this study was listed in Table S1. Among angiosperms, the number of SMXL genes ranged from six in Vitis vinifera to 26 in Glycine max. Monocot species possessed a similar number of SMXL genes: nine in rice (Oryza sativa), 10 in millet (Setaria italica), and 11 in maize (Zea mays). However, the number of SMXL genes in dicots varied greatly: for example, six in cocoa (Theobroma cacao; Malvaceae), seven in tomato (Solanum lycopersicum; Solanaceae), and 14 in potato (Solanum tuberosum). Similarly, diploid cotton had nine SMXL genes, while tetraploid cotton had 18. In Fabaceae plants, the number of SMXL genes also varied greatly, with 26 in soybean (Glycine max) and 13 in alfalfa (Medicago truncatula). We identified 18, 18, 9, 9, and 9 SMXL genes from G. hirsutum, G. barbadense, G. herbaceum, G. raymondii, and G. arboreum, respectively. The molecular weights and isoelectric points of 63 SMXL proteins are shown in Table S2. We reconstructed a phylogenetic tree using 89 SMXL genes identified in ten species genomes: Arabidopsis (8), Physcomitrella patens (4), Vitis vinifera (6), O. sativa (9), Z. mays (11), T. cacao (6), G. hirsutum (18), G. raymondii (9), G. arboreum (9), and G. herbaceum (9) (Fig. 1b). This showed that the 89 SMXL genes clustered into four distinct branches (I, II, III, and IV) (Fig. 1b), with clade I containing SMAX1 and SMXL2, while SMXL6, SMXL7, and SMXL8 were grouped in clade II. Clade III included only SMXL3, and clade IV contained SMXL4 and SMXL5. Moss, an ancient species in evolutionary terms, had only one evolutionary branch of the SMAX1 gene belonging to clade I. The 11 SMXL genes identified in the monocot maize belonged to three distinct evolutionary branches, namely clades I, III, and IV, while the six SMXL genes in dicotyledon cocoa and the 45 SMXL genes present in cotton species could be classified into four evolutionary branches. Further analysis showed that the SMXL6, 7, and 8 genes in clade II were unique to dicotyledons, with no homologous genes found in monocots. Tetraploid cotton possessed twice as many SMXL genes as diploid cotton, which evolutionarily belonged to four branches (Figs. 1b and 2a).

Fig. 1
figure 1

The phylogenetic evolution of plant SMXL genes. a Phylogenetic tree of SMXL genes of 21 representative species from Chlorophyta, Bryophyta, and angiosperm taxa in the plant kingdom; the number of SMXL paralogs in each species indicated. b Phylogenetic tree of 89 SMXL genes in 10 species: Gh, G. hirsutum; Gr, G. raymondii; Ga, G. arboretum; Ghe, G. herbaceum; At, A. thaliana; Os, O. sativa; Vvi, V. vinifera; Pp, P. patens; Tca, T. cacao; Zm, Z. mays. The phylogenetic tree was reconstructed using the neighbor-joining algorithm in MEGA X software with default parameters provided by MEGA, and the check parameter Bootstrap was repeated 1000 times. I, II, III, and IV represent four clusters

Fig. 2
figure 2

Structure of SMXL genes and proteins in G. hirsutum, G. herbaceum, G. raymondii, and G. arboreum and 3D analysis of SMXL proteins. a Phylogenetic tree of 45 SMXL genes in cotton. b Intron and exon structures of 45 SMXL genes, with purple squares representing exons and lines representing introns. c Motif structure of 45 SMXL proteins. d 3D structure predictions of nine GhSMXL proteins; motifs are represented by different colors, with N in blue, D1 in light green, M in green, and D2 in red. D2 consists of two subdomains, D2a in light red and D2b in dark red

Cotton SMXL gene structure, and amino acid motifs and 3D structure of GhSMXL proteins

We used 45 SMXL proteins from G. hirsutum, G. herbaceum, G. raymondii, and G. arboreum for phylogenetic analysis. These were clearly clustered into four groups (Fig. 2a), consistent with the above results (Fig. 1b). Gene structure analysis demonstrated a high degree of consistency in gene structure among members of the same subgroup in cotton (Fig. 2b). Most SMXL genes contained three exons and two introns, but individual SMXL genes had specific structures. For example, in the first subgroup, GaSMAX1-1 had four exons and three introns, in the second subgroup, GaSMXL7-1 had five exons and four introns, and in the third subgroup, GaSMXL3-3 and GheSMXL3-3, had four exons and three introns (Fig. 2b). During motif analysis, we select 15 motifs for analysis, which can provide more comprehensive insights into the structural and functional characteristics of SMXL proteins, with a particular emphasis on subgroup’s distinctions. Subsequently, we predicted 15 motif structures between and within GoSMXL subgroups in different ploidy cotton species. The available cotton genome includes a tetraploid species, G. hirsutum (AD1), and three diploid species: G. raimondii (D5), G. herbaceum (A1), and G. arboreum (A2), which showed high conservation among and within subgroups of the SMXL protein family (Fig. 2c, Table S3). Despite the deletion of motifs in individual proteins, most members displayed highly conserved motif structures. Motifs 1–4 represented the double Clp-N domain. Motifs 12–15 were located in the SMXL C-terminal region, showing correspondence with the P-loop NTPase domain. All identified EAR motifs were located within motif 12. Clp-N domains and P-loop NTPase were highly conserved in G. hirsutum, with the exception of GhSMXL3-2-A, which displayed a conserved EAR motif (Fig. S1). We further predicted the three-dimensional (3D) structure of the GhSMXL proteins based on the AlphaFold2 program [33] (Fig. 2d). Nine pairs of GhSMXL proteins were classified into four types based on their 3D structures: GhSMAX1-1/GhSMAX1-2, GhSMXL3-1/GhSMXL3-2/GhSMXL3-3, GhSMXL4, and GhSMXL6/GhSMXL7-1/GhSMXL7-2. Additionally, five core domains of GhSMXL protein models were defined according to the naming of Shabek et al. (2018) and Zhou et al. (2013): N-terminal Double Clp-N motif (N), hypothetical ATPase domain 1 (D1), middle region (M), and C-terminal hypothetical ATPase domain 2 (D2), which is further divided into D2a and D2b subdomains [34]. These findings suggest that the higher the amino acid similarity between proteins, the more similar their 3D structures, and possibly the more similar their functions.

Chromosomal distribution, collinearity, and selection pressure analysis of the cotton SMXL gene family

The SMXL gene family members were found to be distributed on specific chromosomes in tetraploid cotton species G. hirsutum (AD1) and G. barbadense (AD2) (Fig. S2), consistent with their distribution in AD1 and AD2. Specifically, SMXL genes were found on chromosomes D04, A05, D05, A08, D08, A09, D09, A10, D10, A13, and D13 in both tetraploid species. In G. raimondii (D5), these genes were located on chromosomes 6, 7, 9, 11, and 13, whereas in G. arboreum (A2), they were located on chromosomes 04, 05, 07, 08, 09, 10, and 13. Similarly, in G. herbaceum (A1), these genes were located on chromosomes 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 13. Notably, chromosome A05 in both tetraploid species had the highest number of SMXL gene family members, with four genes located on each chromosome. Diploid species, represented by G. arboreum, G. herbaceum, and G. raimondii, had three SMXL genes located on chromosomes 5 and 13. Notably, GheSMXL3-1 (GheUnG00160) in G. herbaceum was not located on a specific chromosome, but on unassembled Contig1004. In addition, most genes except GhSMXL7-2 were distributed at the ends of chromosomes. However, one homeologous gene pair, GhSMXL3-1-A/D, was located on distinct A and D chromosomes. GhSMXL3-1-A locates at the end of chromosome 5, while GhSMXL3-1-D locates at the end of chromosome 4. The same phenomenon was observed for the G. barbadense GbSMXL3-1-A/D gene pair. These findings suggest that the chromosome segment of these genes may have undergone translocation during the evolution of tetraploid cotton.

The Dt genome of allotetraploid cotton originated from G. raimondii, while the At genome is thought to be derived from the common ancestor of G. arboreum and G. herbaceum [35]. To investigate the expansion and contraction of the SMXL gene family during evolution, we identified the collinear gene pairs of diploid cotton in tetraploid cotton. We further analyzed information on 63 SMXL gene pairs discovered in tetraploid cotton (AD1 and AD2) and diploid cotton (D5, A1, and A2) (Table S4). Using MCScanX software [36], we subsequently reconstructed the collinear relationships between tetraploid and diploid cottons (Fig. 3a) and found that nine SMXL orthologs of upland (tetraploid) cotton were present in the genomes of diploid cotton (A1 and A2). Similarly, analysis of collinear relationships between SMXL genes of island (tetraploid) and diploid cotton revealed that there were also nine homologs of G. barbadense SMXL genes in diploid cotton genomes (Fig. S3). These results suggest that the SMXL genes in tetraploid and diploid cottons have been highly conserved during evolution.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Analyses of collinearity and evolution between diploid and tetraploid cottons. a Colinear analysis between G. hirsutum (AD1) and G. raimondii (D5), G. arboreum (A2), and G. herbaceum (A1), respectively. The outermost ring indicates the different chromosomes, indicated by numbers. Different colors indicate homologous gene pairs between tetraploid and diploid cottons. G. herbaceum CheSMXL3-1 gene is mapped in Contig1004; blue lines connect G. hirsutum and G. arboreum gene pairs, yellow lines connect G. hirsutum and G. herbaceum gene pairs, and red lines connect Dt and D5 gene pairs. b Ka/Ks values of SMXL homologous gene pairs between upland and diploid cottons. c Ka/Ks values for SMXL homologous gene pairs between island and diploid cottons

We further identified orthologous genes between tetraploid and diploid cottons, and then analyzed selection pressures on the SMXL gene family in cotton by calculating the ratio of non-synonymous to synonymous substitution rates (Ka/Ks) of orthologous gene pairs. The Ka/Ks values of all upland cotton and diploid cotton colinear gene pairs were between 0.2 and 0.7 (Fig. 3b), except for GhSMXL3-3-D and GrSMXL3-3, which was 1.30336 (Table S5); in addition, the Ka/Ks values of all colinear gene pairs of island cotton and diploid cotton were less than 1 (Fig. 3c), indicating that most SMXL gene family members were mainly subjected to purifying selection during evolution. Duplication type analysis revealed that segmental duplications were the main mechanisms for producing the expansion of the SMXL gene family in cotton (Table S5).

Expression patterns of GhSMXL genes in G. hirsutum

To investigate the expression patterns and potential biological roles of GhSMXL genes in upland cotton, we performed comprehensive tissue-specific expression analysis using RNA-seq data (Fig. 4a). The expression heatmap revealed three distinct classes among the 18 GhSMXL genes, according to their expression patterns across 15 different tissues. The first group of genes (GhSMAX1-1-A/D, GhSMXL7-1-A/D, and GhSMXL7-2-A/D) exhibited high expression levels in six different tissues and organs (root, stem, leaf, petal, receptacle, and sepal), as well as in fiber-bearing ovules at four time points [0, 1, 3, and 5 d post-anthesis (DPA)], ovules of 10 and 20 DPA, and fibers at three time points (10, 20, and 25 DPA). The second group of genes, consisting of GhSMXL3-2-A/D and GhSMXL3-3-A/D, was expressed at high levels primarily in roots, with minimal expression observed in other tissues. By contrast, GhSMXL6-D was detected in multiple tissues, including roots, stems, petals, receptacles, and sepals, with the highest expression level observed in sepals. The third class of genes contained seven genes, consisting of GhSMXL1-2-A/D, GhSMXL3-1-A/D, GhSMXL4-A/D, and GhSMXL6-A, most of which were mainly expressed in roots and stems, except for GhSMXL1-2-A/D. GhSMAX1-2-A showed the highest expression level in fibers at 10 DPA, followed by high expression in 3- and 5-day-old ovules, and moderate expression in stems, leaves, and receptacles, with low or no expression in other tissues. Additionally, GhSMXL6-A was highly expressed in sepals, and GhSMXL3-1-A was highly expressed in receptacles and fibers at 20 DPA. In general, the 18 GhSMXL genes displayed different expression patterns in various tissues, organs, and fiber developmental stages. Some homeologous gene pairs showed distinct tissue-specific expression differences, suggesting the potential functional diversification of the GhSMXL gene family.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Expression characteristics of GhSMXL genes. a Expression heatmap of GhSMXL genes in different tissues of G. hirsutum. b Expression levels of GhSMXL genes after GR24 treatment; upland cotton seedlings cultured for 16 days were treated with 10 μM GR24 for 0 h (control), 1, 4, 12, 24, and 48 h. Error bars indicate means ± SD (n = 3)

Subsequently, we performed qRT-PCR experiments to further verify the reliability of the transcriptome data. We analyzed nine GhSMXL homeologous gene pairs (without distinguishing between gene pairs on the A and D donor). We used roots, stems, leaves, flowers, shoot apical meristems (SAMs), fiber-bearing ovules ( -3, 0, 3, and 5 DPA), and fibers (8, 12, 20, and 30 DPA) for expression validation. The expression levels of most genes were consistent with the RNA-seq data (Fig. S4). GhSMAX1-1 was highly expressed in leaves and its expression level in 20 DPA fibers showed a rapid increase, corresponding to RNA-seq data. GhSMXL3-1 had relatively high expression levels in stems, but its expression level in roots was the highest in the RNA-seq data, with relatively low expression in other tissues. GhSMXL3-2 had relatively high expression in roots, with the lowest expression at the beginning of fiber development, consistent with the RNA-seq data. GhSMXL3-3 had relatively high expression in roots, stems, and leaves, and low expression in ovules and at different periods of fiber development, whereas the RNA-seq data showed high expression only in roots. GhSMXL4 was highly expressed in roots and SAM, with low expression in ovules and during fiber development, consistent with RNA-seq data. The expression patterns of GhSMXL6, GhSMXL7-1, and GhSMXL7-2 were similar, with high expression only in stems and relatively low expression in other tissues and at different developmental stages. In short, the expression characteristics of GhSMXL genes revealed by RNA-seq and qRT-PCR assays suggested that GhSMXL genes regulate multiple aspects of cotton growth and development and may show functional differentiation.

We analyzed the expression of GhSMXL genes at different time points using qRT-PCR after treatment with the SL analogue GR24 for 48 h. Nine GhSMXL genes showed substantial responses to GR24 treatment and exhibited different expression patterns (Fig. 4b). In the first subgroup, the expression levels of GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 genes increased after GR24 treatment. Among them, GhSMAX1-1 gene expression decreased at 4 h after rising and peaked at 24 h, then declined slowly. However, GhSMAX1-2 expression first rose and reached its peak at 4 h, then declined slowly. In the second subgroup, the expression levels of GhSMXL6, GhSMXL7-1, and GhSMXL7-2 gradually increased within 48 h after GR24 treatment (Fig. 4b), reaching their peak of 6–8 times that of the control at 48 h. The third subgroup displayed differential expression patterns. GhSMXL3-1 expression gradually increased at first, peaked at 12 h, but remained high. GhSMXL3-2 expression decreased sharply after GR24 treatment and showed a decreasing trend over time. GhSMXL3-3 expression rose at first, peaking at 4 h, then declined, increasing slightly at 24 h, and reached its lowest level at 48 h, showing a decline in general. However, the expression level of GhSMXL4 in the fourth subgroup was similar to that of GhSMXL3-2, showing a sharp decline at first after GR24 treatment, then a slow rise, and finally a decline. These findings suggested that GhSMXL genes respond to SL signals. We speculate that GhSMXL6, GhSMXL7-1, and GhSMXL7-2 genes are regulated by SL phytohormone signals and may play important roles in the growth and development and phytohormone pathways of cotton.

Co-expression network of SMXL6/7–1/7–2 proteins in G. hirsutum and G. arboreum

In previous studies, Arabidopsis SMXL6/7/8 and rice D53 proteins have been shown to promote branching in the D14-MAX2 signaling pathway activated by SL through ubiquitination-mediated protein degradation [14, 17]. To investigate the potential biological functions of SMXL6, 7, and 8 in cotton, we further explored the co-expression networks of GhSMXL6, GhSMXL7-1, and GhSMXL7-2 with their homologs GaSMXL6, GaSMXL7-1, and GaSMXL7-2 in G. hirsutum and G. arboreum (Fig. 5). The SMXL6, SMXL7-1, and SMXL7-2 proteins of G. hirsutum and G. arboreum and proteins encoded by their co-expressed genes were annotated and functionally classified (Table S6). GhSMXL6/7–1/7–2 and GaSMXL6/7–1/7–2 proteins contain two Clp-N motifs and a P-loop structure of hydrolases (Table S6). Functional predictions indicated that the proteins interacting with GhSMXL6/7–1/7–2 and GaSMXL6/7–1/7–2 are mainly involved in bud development and branching, including WUSCHEL (WUS) [37], BELL1 (BEL1) [38], and myb domain protein 5 (MYB5) [39]; transcription factors involved in the regulation of plant growth and development, such as basic leucine zipper (bZIP) [40], GRAS [41], and AP2/ERF [42]; proteins related to phytohormone signaling pathways such as gibberellin 2-beta-dioxygenase 2 (GA2OX2) [43] and GA-stimulated transcript 1 (GAST1) [44], involved in the gibberellin pathway; proteins that respond to red/far-red light and anthocyanin formation, such as cryptochrome circadian regulator 1 (CRY1) [45] and cytochrome P450 (P450) [46]; proteins involved in metabolic biosynthesis pathways, such as trehalose-6-phosphate synthase (TPS) [47], hexokinase 2 (HXK2) [48], and dehydration-responsive element-binding (DREB) [49]. These results suggest that the target proteins of GhSMXL6/7–1/7–2 are highly expressed in buds and floral organs and participate in biological processes related to branching development, phytohormone signaling, light response, and metabolic biosynthesis pathways, which provides a basis for further investigations into the functional mechanism of SMXL6/7–1/7–2 genes.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Comparative analysis of the co-expression networks of SL signaling pathway target proteins SMXL6/7–1/7–2 in G. hirsutum and G. arboreum. Proteins encoded by homologous gene pairs in the two species are connected by red dashed lines. Yellow indicates key proteins. The key proteins in G. hirsutum are Gh_A10G2131 (GhSMXL6), Gh_A05G0731 (GhSMXL7-1), and Gh_A05G2628 (GhSMXL7-2), while the key proteins in G. arboreum are Cotton_A_15848 (GaSMXL6), Cotton_A_12945 (GaSMXL7-1), and Cotton_A_31484 (GaSMXL7-2), which are noted in red font. Green indicates target proteins, which interact with SMXL6/7–1/7–2. Solid pink lines connect up-regulated proteins, and solid blue lines connect down-regulated proteins

Silencing of GhSMXL genes inhibits cotton growth

To investigate the roles of GhSMXL genes in regulating cotton growth and development, we used the virus-induced gene silencing (VIGS) method to silence GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 genes. After silencing of two GhSMXL genes, phenotypic observations showed that growth of the apical meristem was slow or stagnant, development of axillary buds was inhibited, and plant height was dwarfed compared with the control (Fig. 6, Fig. S5). The TRV: SMAX1-1 plants showed an obvious dwarfing phenotype, and growth of the main stem was inhibited (Fig. 6a). The TRV: SMAX1-2 plants also showed dwarfing and delayed growth (Fig. 6b). These results suggest that GhSMXL genes play crucial roles in regulating cotton growth and development. Silencing of the GhSMAX1-1 or GhSMAX1-2 genes had a substantial impact on the growth of the apical meristem and the elongation of the stem, ultimately causing dwarfism in cotton plants. qRT-PCR assays revealed that the expression levels of GhSMAX1-1/2 were significantly reduced in silenced plants compared with the control group (Fig. 6c and d). Taken together, these results suggest that GhSMAX1-1/2 genes play important roles in promoting stem elongation and axillary bud development in cotton.

Fig. 6
figure 6

VIGS assays of GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 genes in cotton. a, b Phenotypes resulting from silencing of the GhSMAX1-1/2 genes in upland cotton; bars, 10 cm. Relative expression of GhSMAX1-1 (c) and GhSMAX1-2 (d) among control and VIGS plants using qRT-PCR. Values are means ± SD (n = 3). Asterisks indicate significant differences between control TRV:00 and TRV: GhSMAX1-1/2 silencing lines (Student’s t test, “***” represents P < 0.001)


Evolution of the SMXL gene family in plants

In recent years, owing to the development of genome sequencing, comprehensive genome-wide analyses of SMXL genes haves been conducted in several species, with 8, 10, 31, and 12 SMXL gene family members identified in Arabidopsis, apple, soybean and poplar, respectively [50,51,52,53]. Moturu et al. (2018) dissected the expansion of the SMXL gene family in 58 plant genomes and found that the oldest SMAX1 gene underwent three duplications during the evolutionary process from bryophytes to land plants, resulting in the development of new genes or functional differentiation. Moturu et al. (2018) revealed that the expansion of SMXL genes likely involved 128 duplications and 276–284 loss events [50]. Whole-genome duplication (WGD) and whole-genome triplication (WGT) mechanisms may have played a critical role in this process. It is postulated that the SMXL genes first appeared in liverworts. Previous studies have shown that the SMAX1 gene family emerged in a terrestrial plant (moss), and it is speculated that the SMXL gene family originated from Bryophyta [5]. The results of molecular clock tests indicate that the members of the four branches of the SMXL gene family have undergone functional differentiation or neo-functionalization, indicated by their different evolutionary rates [50]. Using fine-assembled plant genomes and diverse plant species, this study further introduced diploid and tetraploid cotton genomes, identifying 210 SMXL genes in 21 representative species from Chlorophyta, Bryophyta and angiosperms. Aquatic Chlorophyta do not contain any SMXL genes, and only four SMAX1 genes were identified in bryophytes. Bryophytes are considered to be the earliest plants to differentiate into stems and leaves, suggesting that the SMAX1 genes may play an important role in plant morphology formation and adaptation to environmental changes. Our results suggest that gene duplication is the primary driver of SMXL gene evolution in cotton, as the number of SMXL gene families in tetraploid cotton is twice that of diploid cotton. Phylogenetic analysis showed that plant SMXL genes can be classified into four branches (I, II, III, and IV) (Fig. 1b, Fig. 2a), with only one SMAX1 branch identified in bryophytes, consistent with previous research [50]. Moreover, we found that SMXL6, SMXL7, and SMXL8 in the second subgroup of angiosperms are unique to dicotyledonous plants, suggesting that cotton SMXL6, SMXL7-1, and SMXL7-2 may play vital roles in species differentiation.

Structural characteristics and evolution of the SMXL gene family in cotton

Since the successful completion of the first G. raimondii genome sequencing and assembly in 2012 [36], 41 cotton genomes have been assembled and published in the past decade [54]. These genomic resources have significantly advanced cotton functional genomics research. The D subgenome of G. hirsutum originates from G. raimondii D5, while the A subgenome comes from the common ancestor A0 genome of G. herbaceum and G. arboreum. G. arboreum did not originate from G. herbaceum but was independently domesticated from an unknown A0 genome [35]. In this study, we identified 63 SMXL genes from the genomes of two tetraploid and three diploid cotton species. The presence of nine SMXL genes in diploid cotton and 18 SMXL genes in tetraploid cotton indicates that all SMXL genes in tetraploid cotton were generated by genome duplication. The distribution of SMXL genes on chromosomes is consistent between G. hirsutum and G. barbadense (Fig. S2). Notably, SMXL3-1 in the A and D subgenomes of tetraploid cotton is found at the ends of chromosomes 5 and 4, respectively. We hypothesize that the chromosome segment containing the SMXL3-1 gene underwent translocation during the process of cotton genome duplication. No tandem duplication was found in the cotton SMXL gene family, with most family members arising from segmental duplication. This suggests that segmental duplication events were the primary driver of expansion in the SMXL gene family in cotton. All diploid cotton species have nine SMXL genes that correspond to those in tetraploid cotton, suggesting that the SMXL gene family is highly conserved in cotton. Amino acid changes caused by nonsynonymous substitutions can result in alterations in protein conformation and function [55]. The majority of SMXL genes have a Ka/Ks value of less than 1, indicating that members of the SMXL gene family were under selective pressure for adaptation to environmental changes during cotton tetraploidization. Most SMXL genes have been retained by purifying selection, suggesting their crucial roles in species differentiation.

The evolutionary characteristics and functional differentiation of homologous SMXL genes can be attributed to the presence of consistent and differential functional motifs in their conserved structure and peptide sequences [56]. Within the same subgroup, the structure of genes and protein motifs are similar, with a few exceptions (Fig. 2b and c). Apart from GaSMAX1-1, GaSMXL7-1, GaSMXL3-3, and GheSMXL3-3, all other SMXL genes possess three exons and two introns. There are differences in the number of motifs and amino acids in different subgroups, but the Clp-N domains, P-loop NTPase, and EAR-like motifs of their amino acid sequences are relatively conserved (Fig. S1), which may reflect different biological functions between each subgroup. 3-D structures of SMXL proteins in G. hirsutum have revealed that proteins of the same subgroup exhibit a high degree of structural similarity. Moreover, the N, D1, M, and D2 domains of these proteins are likely to play a crucial role in performing specific functions [57]. Previous studies demonstrated that the Arabidopsis SMXL7N domain contains a nuclear localization signal. The D2 domain of SMAX1 serves as a target for degradation induced by KAR and SL [34, 58]. Yeast two-hybrid experiments with SMAX1 and SMXL7 indicate that the SMXL protein interacts with KAI2 and D14 via the D1M domain, while the N domain is unnecessary [34]. A conserved Arg-Gly-Lys-Thr (RGKT) motif contained in the D2a domain is crucial for MAX2-mediated D53/SMXL7 protein degradation. SMXL3, SMXL4, and SMXL5 proteins cannot be degraded because they lack a RGKT motif [14]. Moreover, SMAX1 and SMXL2 lose their SCFMAX2-induced degradation activity after RGKT motif deletion [34]. We found that protein structures in the same subgroup are highly similar, and the main domain (N, D1, M, and D2) of these proteins may play a key role in their specific functions. This study therefore provides valuable insights into the evolution of the plant SMXL gene family and our understanding of the structural characteristics of this family, which will facilitate further exploration of the biological functions of SMXL proteins.

Cotton SMXL genes regulate various aspects of growth and development

Previous research revealed that members of sub-group I (AtSMAX1/AtSMXL2) play a critical role in the KAR signaling pathway and directly participate in the regulation of seed germination and leaf development in Arabidopsis [14, 59]. These proteins, together with SMXL2, also function downstream in the KAI signaling pathway to regulate root and root hair development in conjunction with SMXL2 [60]. They also promote hypocotyl elongation, resulting in crosstalk between the D14-SMAX1 signal and targeted degradation of SMAX1 protein under GR24 treatment and osmotic stress [61]. By contrast, members of sub-group II (AtSMXL6, 7, 8, and rice D53) encode key inhibitors of the SL signaling pathway. Upon activation of the SL signaling pathway, SMXL6/7/8 proteins are degraded by proteasomes, leading to the inhibition of branching in Arabidopsis and tillering in rice [14, 17, 57]. Members of sub-groups III and IV (AtSMXL3, AtSMXL4, and AtSMXL5) exhibit different characteristics from other members of the SMXL family; they are not involved in the SL or KAR signaling pathways and do not rely on MAX2-mediated protein degradation [18]. Recent research shows that SMXL genes have a wide range of functions in plant growth, development, and stress responses [62]. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying phytohormone signaling and abiotic stress responses remain poorly understood. Analysis of the upstream 2000-bp sequence of the GhSMXL gene transcription start site revealed the presence of various cis-acting elements associated with light, growth and development, phytohormones, and stress (Fig. S6). This suggests that GhSMXL genes may execute functional diversity. GhSMXL genes display diverse patterns of expression across various tissues, organs, and stages of fiber development, with homologous genes exhibiting similar expression characteristics but individual genes showing differential expression. GR24 treatment of cotton seedlings produces a stable increase in the expression levels of SMXL6/7–1/7–2 genes, and rising trends in the expression levels of GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 genes, albeit with fluctuating expression levels. Co-expression network analysis identified proteins that may interact to perform a specific function; for example, the anti-florigen protein TFL1, Cryptochrome Circadian Regulator 1 (CRY1), cytochrome enzyme P450, meristem-associated WUSCHEL protein, gibberellin biosynthesis-related gibberellin 2-beta-dioxygenase 2 (GA2OX2), and GA-stimulated transcript 1 (GAST1) proteins, all of which are involved in phytohormonal signaling pathways. According to the expression characteristics of GhSMXL genes in different tissues and after GR24 treatment, we speculate that cotton SMXL6/7–1/7–2 genes play critical roles in the SL signaling pathway with some functional redundancy. These results imply that the members of the cotton SMXL gene family respond to SL signals and participate in plant growth and development.

GhSMAX1-1/2 play an important role in the regulation of cotton growth

The D14/KAI-SMXL complex interacts with SCFMAX2, resulting in degradation of SMXL proteins [14]. D14 and KAI receptors need F-box protein MAX2 to perceive signaling molecules. Arabidopsis SMAX1 and its homologous protein rice D53 serve as downstream targets of MAX2. The Arabidopsis max2 mutant has a dwarf stature and increased lateral branching phenotype, while SMXL6, 7, and 8 can restore max2 to the wild-type phenotype [14]. Thus, SMXL6, 7, and 8, as target proteins of MAX2, act as suppressors of SL signals, functioning in the regulation of plant height and branching. The Arabidopsis smax1 smxl2 mutant has a very short hypocotyl. Genetic evidence shows that degradation of SMXL6, 7, and 8 proteins does not affect hypocotyl growth, while interactions between SMAX1, SMXL2, and D14 promote hypocotyl elongation in response to GR24 in Arabidopsis [61]. We found that downregulation of GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 genes through VIGS inhibits stem elongation and axillary bud development, resulting in a significant decline in cotton plant height. These results further confirm that SMAX1 homologs play critical roles in regulating hypocotyl elongation to change plant architecture by affecting plant height.


In this study, we identified 210 SMXL genes from 21 plant species and divided these into four different phylogenetic clades with functional diversities. Homologs of SMAX1 have been well conserved during the evolution of terrestrial plants. Among them, 63 SMXL genes identified from five Gossypium species were clustered into four clades, and all cotton SMXL proteins contained conserved Clp-N domains, P-loop NTPases, and EAR motifs. The GhSMXL gene is highly expressed in root and stem tissues, and the expression level of GhSMXL6/7–1/7–2 is considerably responsive to GR24 treatment. Protein network analysis showed that the target proteins of SMXL6, SMXL7-1, and SMXL7-2 in G. hirsutum and G. arboreum are involved in the development of shoots and floral organs. Silencing of GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 genes resulted in plant dwarfism and inhibition of axillary bud development. The present study suggests functional diversities of the plant SMXL gene family and the important roles of GhSMXL in the SL signaling pathway. Rapid technological progress should enable us to dissect the functional specificity of plant SMXL proteins to understand their importance in cotton development.


Plant materials

In summer of 2019, G. hirsutum L. cv. ‘XLZ 33’ were field-grown under natural conditions at Shihezi University's experimental farm in Shihezi City, Xinjiang, China (44°20′ N, 86°0′ E), as previously described [63]. We have obtained the permission to collect plant material G. hirsutum. Samples of roots, stems, true leaves, and SAM at 40 days post-planting and flowers at -3, 0, 3, and 5 days post-anthesis (DPA), as well as fibers at 8, 12, 20, and 30 DPA, were collected, respectively. Seeds of G. hirsutum L. standard line TM-1 were grown in Petri dishes with nutrient soil and vermiculite mixture (1:1). Petri dishes were placed in a growth chamber (16-h light/8-h dark, 200 µmol m–2 s–1). Plants growing for 14 days with 2 days of 50 ml Hoagland nutrient solution irrigation were treated with rac-GR24 (10 μM) (purchased from Solarbio) by wiping the cotton leaves [64]. Leaves from three consistent, young seedlings were collected as three biological replicates at 0, 1, 4, 12, 24, and 48 h after GR24 treatment. All tissues samples were frozen immediately in liquid nitrogen and stored at -80 ℃ for RNA extraction.

Identification of SMXL gene family members in 21 plant species

Genome sequences of five cotton species, G. hirsutum, G. barbadense, G. raimondii, G. arboreum, and G. herbaceum, were obtained from the cotton genome database (table S7). Genome sequences of other Viridiplantae—P. patens, V. vinifera, O. sativa, Z. mays, T. cacao, O. lucimarinus, C. reinhardtii, S. italica, S. lycopersicum, S. tuberosum, M. esculenta, M. truncatula, Brassica rapa, Cucumis sativus, Glycine max, and C. clementina—were downloaded from the Phytozome database ( The protein sequences of SMXLs in A. thaliana were obtained from the TAIR website ( and used as probes for homology searches with the BLASTP program (E-value < 1 × 10−5). Protein sequences identified were submitted to the PfamScan program ( to obtain candidate SMXL proteins using domain analysis. SMXL homologs in cotton were classified and named according to their similarity to A. thaliana and the structural characteristics of genes. Molecular weight and isoelectric point of proteins were estimated using the ExPASy protein analysis tool (, and subcellular localization was predicted using the ProtComp 9.0 program (

Phylogenetic tree reconstruction, gene structure, and protein motif distribution

Divergence times of the above 21 plant species on a scale of MYA (million years ago) with confidence intervals were estimated using the TIMETREE website ( A Newick file was generated, and a species phylogenetic tree was reconstructed using MEGA11 software [65]. Members of the SMXL gene family were identified and clustered using ClustalW software for multiple sequence alignment of protein sequences with default parameters [66]. A phylogenetic tree of the SMXL genes was reconstructed using the neighbor-joining (NJ) method in MEGA11 software [65] to analyze their evolutionary relationships. The positions of introns and exons in the SMXL genes in cotton were extracted from the gff file of the cotton database. Multiple sequence alignment was performed using MUSCLE software (, and conserved motifs in the protein sequences were identified using the online MEME website ( with 15 motifs and default settings. Gene structure diagrams were drawn using TBtools software [67].

Analysis of cis-acting elements and prediction of 3D protein structure

Promoter sequences were obtained by considering the 2000 bp upstream of the start codon. Plant Cis-acting Regulatory Element (Plant CARE) software [68] was used to search for cis-acting regulatory elements, and the results were visualized using the R package pheatmap. Protein structure prediction was performed using the AlphaFold2 program [33] based on known amino acid sequences of the protein family; an initial model was generated, followed by outputting the protein 3D structure in the PyMOL software (

Chromosome localization

Chromosome positions of SMXL genes were determined by identifying their start and end positions from the cotton genome database gff3 file. A chromosome location map was designed using MapGene2C online software ( [69].

Comparative evolutionary analysis

Collinearity analysis was conducted to predict homologous genes of SMXL between species using MCScanX [70] with default parameters. Orthologous genes between diploid and tetraploid cotton were identified using BLASTP alignment with E-value < 1 × 10 − 5. Duplication types of the cotton SMXL gene family were analyzed using the downstream analysis program of MCScanX software, duplicate_gene_classifier [70]. Circos software [71] was used to visualize collinearity relationships of homologous genes. Homologous genes were aligned using the Muscle method in paraAT2.0 software [72]. The non-synonymous substitution rate (Ka), synonymous substitution rate (Ks), and Ka/Ks ratio were calculated using KaKs_Calculator2.0 [73] to evaluate the selective pressures on SMXL genes during the evolutionary process. A Ka/Ks ratio > 1, < 1, or = 1 indicates positive, negative, or neutral evolution, respectively [74].

Expression profiles of GhSMXL genes

RNA-seq data of the different tissues of G. hirsutum TM-1—roots, stems, leaves, petals, receptacles, sepals, and ovules at 0, 1, 3, 5, 10, and 20 DPA and fibers at 10, 20, and 25 DPA [75]. The transcriptome data were aligned to the cotton genome using TopHat2 with default settings [76]. Cufflinks software was used to calculate the FPKM (fragments per kilobase of exon model per million mapped reads) value for each gene. Expression levels of GhSMXL genes in nine tissues were represented by log-transformed FPKM (log2[FPKM + 1]) values, and the R package pheatmap was used to visualize data.

Total RNA for each sample was isolated using a FastPure Plant Total RNA Isolation Kit (Polysaccharides & Polyphenolics–rich) (Vazyme, Nanjing) according to the manufacturer’s guidance. Total RNA was reverse transcribed into cDNA using a HiScript III RT SuperMix for qRT-PCR (Vazyme, Nanjing) kit. qRT-PCR was performed using a ChamQ Universal SYBR qPCR (Vazyme, Nanjing) kit on an Applied Biosystems 7500 Fast Real-Time PCR System (Life Technologies, Foster City, CA, USA). Gene-specific primers were designed using the online primer3 software ( (Table S8). qRT-PCR conditions were as previously described [77], with an initial denaturation step at 95 °C for 20 s, followed by 40 cycles of denaturation at 95 °C for 3 s and annealing/extension at 60 °C for 30 s. GhUBQ7 was used as a reference gene [77]. Three independent qRT-PCR experiments were carried out, each with three mechanical repeats, and relative expression levels were determined using the 2–∆Ct method [78].

Protein co-expression network analysis

The ccNET database ( was utilized, which integrates the cotton genome, transcriptome, epigenome, and functional annotations. Protein sequences of SMXL6, SMXL7-1, and SMXL7-2 from G. hirsutum and G. arboreum were submitted to the website to compare the co-expression networks of SMXL proteins in diploid and tetraploid cottons. Key target proteins of SMXL6, SMXL7-1, and SMXL7-2 were identified, and functional annotations were performed.


For VIGS assays, approximately 200-bp nucleotide sequences of the open reading frames of SMAX1-1 and SMAX1-2 genes were amplified by PCR using gene-specific primers designed using the SGN VIGS Tool online software ( [79] (Table S8). The fragments obtained were then inserted into the pTRV2 vector to create pTRV2: GhSMXL constructs. The VIGS experiment was performed as described by Liu et al. (2021). Each pTRV: GhSMXL plasmid was introduced into Agrobacterium tumefaciens strain GV3101 and infiltrated into the cotyledons of 2-week-old G. hirsutum L. cv. ‘XLZ 33’ [80].

Availability of data and materials

All data sheets and codes to process data are available upon request to the corresponding author, Xianzhong Huang ( The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are available in the NCBI Sequence Read Archive under BioProject ID: PRJNA490626.







Ethylene response factor-associated amphiphilic repression




More axillary branching








Million years ago


Whole-genome duplication


Whole-genome triplication


Quantitative real-time PCR


Day post-anthesis






Fragments per kilobase of exon model per million mapped reads


Virus-induced gene silencing


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This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31860393, 31360366), and the University Discipline (Major) Top Talent Cultivation Funding Project (No. gxbjZD2021072), and the Academic Leaders of Anhui University of Science and Technology Introduction Starting Fund (No. NXYJ202001).

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BM carried out all the analysis and experiments. JZ planted cotton materials in the field and collected samples. XH conceived and designed the study. XH and BM drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Xianzhong Huang.

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Supplementary Information

Additional file 1:

Supplementary table S1. Identification of SMXL gene family members from 21 plants. Supplementary table S2. Information of SMXL gene family in cotton (Gossypium sp.). Supplementary table S3. Amino acid sequences of motif 1-15 of GhSMXL proteins. Supplementary table S4. Information of the homologus·SMXL proteins in cotton (Gossypium sp.). Supplementary table S5. Syntenic SMXL gene pairs between allotetraploid and diploid cottons. Supplementary table S6. Analysis of network of SMXL6, 7-1, and 7-2 proteins in G.hirsutum and G.arboreum. Supplementary table S7. Information of the cotton database versions and websites used in this study. Supplementary table S8. Primer sequence information used in this study.

Additional file 2:

Fig. S1. Multi nucleotide sequence alignment of GhSMXL genes. Fig. S2. Chromosomal distributions of SMXL genes in Gossypium spp. Fig. S3. Collinearity analysis of G. barbadense (At and Dt) orthologs in the genomes G. raimondii, G. arboreum, and G. herbaceum. Fig. S4. Expression characteristics of nine GhSMXL genes in 13 tissues determined using qRT-PCR. Fig. S5. Plant heights of the GhSMAX1-1 and GhSMAX1-2 silenced plants. Fig. S6. Information of cis-acting elements of GhSMXL genes.

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Ma, B., Zhu, J. & Huang, X. Diversification of plant SUPPRESSOR OF MAX2 1 (SMAX1)-like genes and genome-wide identification and characterization of cotton SMXL gene family. BMC Plant Biol 23, 419 (2023).

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