PLANT BIOTECHNOLOGY JOURNAL
Epigenetic variation has been associated with a wide range of adaptive phenotypes in plants, but there exist few direct means for exploiting this variation. RNAi suppression of the plant-specific gene, MutS HOMOLOG1 (MSH1), in multiple plant species produces a range of developmental changes accompanied by modulation of defence, phytohormone and abiotic stress response pathways along with methylome repatterning. This msh1-conditioned developmental reprogramming is retained independent of transgene segregation, giving rise to transgene-null ‘memory’ effects. An isogenic memory line crossed to wild type produces progeny families displaying increased variation in adaptive traits that respond to selection. This study investigates amenability of the MSH1 system for inducing agronomically valuable epigenetic variation in soybean. We developed MSH1 epi-populations by crossing with msh1-acquired soybean memory lines. Derived soybean epi-lines showed increase in variance for multiple yield-related traits including pods per plant, seed weight and maturity time in both glasshouse and field trials. Selected epi-F2:4 and epi-F2:5 lines showed an increase in seed yield over wild type. By epi-F2:6, we observed a return of MSH1-derived enhanced growth back to wild-type levels. Epi-populations also showed evidence of reduced epitype-by-environment (e × E) interaction, indicating higher yield stability. Transcript profiling of epi-lines identified putative signatures of enhanced growth behaviour across generations. Genes related to cell cycle, abscisic acid biosynthesis and auxin response, particularly SMALL AUXIN UP RNAs (SAURs), were differentially expressed in epi-F2:4 lines that showed increased yield when compared to epi-F2:6 . These data support the potential of MSH1-derived epigenetic variation in plant breeding for enhanced yield and yield stability.