Endosperm transfer cells (ETCs) are positioned at the intersection of maternal and filial tissues in seeds of cereals and represent a bottleneck for apoplasmic transport of assimilates into the endosperm. Endosperm cellularization starts at the maternal-filial boundary and generates the highly specialized ETCs. During differentiation barley ETCs develop characteristic flange-like wall ingrowths to facilitate effective nutrient transfer. A comprehensive morphological analysis depicted distinct developmental time points in establishment of transfer cell (TC) morphology and revealed intracellular changes possibly associated with cell wall metabolism. Embedded inside the grain, ETCs are barely accessible by manual preparation. To get tissue-specific information about ETC specification and differentiation, laser microdissection (LM)-based methods were used for transcript and metabolite profiling. Transcriptome analysis of ETCs at different developmental stages by microarrays indicated activated gene expression programs related to control of cell proliferation and cell shape, cell wall and carbohydrate metabolism reflecting the morphological changes during early ETC development. Transporter genes reveal distinct expression patterns suggesting a switch from active to passive modes of nutrient uptake with the onset of grain filling. Tissue-specific RNA-seq of the differentiating ETC region from the syncytial stage until functionality in nutrient transfer identified a high number of novel transcripts putatively involved in ETC differentiation. An essential role for two-component signaling (TCS) pathways in ETC development of barley emerged from this analysis. Correlative data provide evidence for abscisic acid and ethylene influences on ETC differentiation and hint at a crosstalk between hormone signal transduction and TCS phosphorelays. Collectively, the data expose a comprehensive view on ETC development, associated pathways and identified candidate genes for ETC specification.
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