Background: Accurate import of thousands of nuclear-encoded proteins is an important step in plastid biogenesis. However, the import machinery of cytosolic precursor proteins to plastids relies on the Toc and Tic (translocons on the outer envelope and inner envelope membrane of chloroplasts) complexes. Toc159 protein was identified in pea (Pisum sativum) as a major receptor for the precursor proteins. In Arabidopsis thaliana, four psToc159 homologs are identified, termed atToc159, atToc132, atToc120 and atToc90. The expression of these protein-encoding genes has to be properly regulated, because their gene products must be correctly integrated to appropriate apparatus to perform their functions. Results: In order to elucidate the regulatory mechanisms of atTOC159 homologous gene expression, transgenes containing various lengths of the upstream regulatory sequences of atTOC159/atTOC132/atTOC120/atTOC90 and GUS coding sequence were transferred to wild type Arabidopsis. In accordance with the analysis of GUS activity in these transgenic plants at various developmental stages, these homologous genes had distinct expression patterns. AtTOC159 and atTOC90 are preferentially expressed in above-ground tissues, such as cotyledons and leaves. In mature roots, atTOC159 and atTOC132 are expressed at higher levels, while atTOC120 and atTOC90 are expressed at the basal level. All four genes have increased expression level during flower and fruit development, particularly a remarkably high expression level of atTOC159 in later stage of fruit development. Furthermore, leader intron in the 5′ UTR induces the expression level of atTOC159 members in a tissue-specific manner. This is able to up-regulate the atTOC120 expression in roots/leaves/flowers, and the atTOC90 expression in cotyledons/leaves/anthers. Conclusions: The differential expression of atTOC159 gene members is essential during plastid development, because proper atToc159 isoforms are required to import distinct proteins to the plastids of different tissues.
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