A detached leaf assay for testing transient gene expression and gene editing in cowpea

15 Jun 2020


The legume cowpea (Vigna unguiculata L.) is extensively grown in sub-Saharan Africa. Cowpea, like many legumes has proved recalcitrant to plant transformation. A rapid transient leaf assay was developed for testing gene expression and editing constructs prior to stable cowpea transformation, to accelerate cowpea and legume crop improvement.


Attempts to develop a transient protoplast system for cowpea were unsuccessful. Leaflets from plants 3–4 weeks post-germination were age selected to establish a rapid Agrobacterium (Agro) infiltration-mediated transient system for efficacy testing of gene expression and CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing constructs. In planta, Agro-infiltration of leaflets with fluorescent expression constructs, resulted in necrosis. By contrast, Agro-infiltration of detached leaflets with an Arabidopsis (At) ubiquitin3 promoter:ZsGreen construct, followed by culture on solid nutrient medium resulted in fluorescence in over 48% of leaf cells. Expression efficiency was leaf age-dependent. Three cowpea meiosis genes were identified for CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing, with the forward aim of meiosis-knock out for asexual seed induction in cowpea. Constructs were designed and tested containing candidate gene-specific guide RNAs, expressed using either the cowpea or Arabidopsis U6 promoters with Cas9 expression directed by either the Arabidopsis 40S ribosomal protein or parsley ubiquitin4-2 promoters. Leaflets were infiltrated with test gene-editing constructs and analytical methods developed to identify gene-specific mutations. A construct that produced mutations predicted to induce functional knockout of in the VuSPO11-1 meiosis gene was tested for efficacy in primary transgenic cowpea plants using a previously established stable transformation protocol. Vuspo11-1 mutants were identified, that cytologically phenocopied spo11-1 mutants previously characterized in Arabidopsis, and rice. Importantly, a biallelic male and female sterile mutant was identified in primary transgenics, exhibiting the expected defects in 100% of examined male and female meiocytes.


The transient, detached cowpea leaf assay, and supporting analytical methods developed, provide a rapid and reproducible means for testing gene expression constructs, and constructs for inducing mutagenesis in genes involved in both vegetative and reproductive developmental programs. The method and tested editing constructs and components have potential application for a range of crop legumes.


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Juranić, M., Nagahatenna, D.S.K., Salinas-Gamboa, R., Hand, M., Sanchez-Leon, N., Leong, W H., How, T., Bazanova, N., Spriggs, A., Vielle-Calzada, JP., Koltunow, AM. . A detached leaf assay for testing transient gene expression and gene editing in cowpea (Vigna unguiculata [L.] Walp.). Plant Methods 16, 88 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13007-020-00630-4