The sunflower genome provides insights into oil metabolism, flowering and Asterid evolution

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Abstract

A high-quality reference for the sunflower genome (Helianthus annuus L.) and analysis of gene networks involved in flowering time and oil metabolism provide a basis for nutritional exploitation and analyses of adaptation to climate change.

The domesticated sunflower, Helianthus annuus L., is a global oil crop that has promise for climate change adaptation, because it can maintain stable yields across a wide variety of environmental conditions, including drought1. Even greater resilience is achievable through the mining of resistance alleles from compatible wild sunflower relatives2,3, including numerous extremophile species4. Here we report a high-quality reference for the sunflower genome (3.6 gigabases), together with extensive transcriptomic data from vegetative and floral organs. The genome mostly consists of highly similar, related sequences5 and required single-molecule real-time sequencing technologies for successful assembly. Genome analyses enabled the reconstruction of the evolutionary history of the Asterids, further establishing the existence of a whole-genome triplication at the base of the Asterids II clade6 and a sunflower-specific whole-genome duplication around 29 million years ago7. An integrative approach combining quantitative genetics, expression and diversity data permitted development of comprehensive gene networks for two major breeding traits, flowering time and oil metabolism, and revealed new candidate genes in these networks. We found that the genomic architecture of flowering time has been shaped by the most recent whole-genome duplication, which suggests that ancient paralogues can remain in the same regulatory networks for dozens of millions of years. This genome represents a cornerstone for future research programs aiming to exploit genetic diversity to improve biotic and abiotic stress resistance and oil production, while also considering agricultural constraints and human nutritional needs8,9.

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