Prediction and characterization of transcription factors involved in drought stress response

Transcription factors (TFs) play a central role in regulating molecular level responses of plants to external stresses such as water limiting conditions, but identification of such TFs in the genome remains a challenge. Here, we describe a network-based supervised machine learning framework that accurately predicts and ranks all TFs in the genome according to their potential association with drought tolerance. We show that top ranked regulators fall mainly into two ‘age’ groups; genes that appeared first in land plants and genes that emerged later in the Oryza clade. TFs predicted to be high in the ranking belong to specific gene families, have relatively simple intron/exon and protein structures, and functionally converge to regulate primary and secondary metabolism pathways. Repeated trials of nested cross-validation tests showed that models trained only on regulatory network patterns, inferred from large transcriptome datasets, outperform models trained on heterogenous genomic features in the prediction of known drought response regulators. A new R/Shiny based web application, called the DroughtApp, provides a primer for generation of new testable hypotheses related to regulation of drought stress response. Furthermore, to test the system we experimentally validated predictions on the functional role of the rice transcription factor OsbHLH148, using RNA sequencing of knockout mutants in response to drought stress and protein-DNA interaction assays. Our study exemplifies the integration of domain knowledge for prioritization of regulatory genes in biological pathways of well-studied agricultural traits.

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