Nicotine, the most abundant pyridine alkaloid in cultivated tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum
L.), is a potent inhibitor of insect and animal herbivory and a neurostimulator of human brain function. Nicotine biosynthesis is controlled developmentally and can be induced by abiotic and biotic stressors via a jasmonic acid (JA)-mediated signal transduction mechanism involving members of the APETALA 2/ethylene-responsive factor (AP2/ERF) and basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factor (TF) families. AP2/ERF and bHLH TFs work combinatorically to control nicotine biosynthesis and its subsequent accumulation in tobacco leaves. Here, we demonstrate that overexpression of the tobacco NtERF32, NtERF221/ORC1, and NtMYC2a TFs leads to significant increases in nicotine accumulation in T2 transgenic K326 tobacco plants before topping. Up to 9-fold higher nicotine production was achieved in transgenics overexpressing NtERF221/ORC1 under the control of a constitutive GmUBI3 gene promoter compared to wild-type plants. The constitutive 2XCaMV35S promoter and a novel JA-inducible 4XGAG promoter were less effective in driving high-level nicotine formation. Methyljasmonic acid (MeJA) treatment further elevated nicotine production in all transgenic lines. Our results show that targeted manipulation of NtERF221/ORC1 is an effective strategy for elevating leaf nicotine levels in commercial tobacco for use in the preparation of reduced risk tobacco products for smoking replacement therapeutics.
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