Many transposable elements in maize alternate between active and inactive phases associated with the modification of their DNA. Elements in an inactive phase lose their ability to transpose, their ability to excise from reporter alleles and, in some cases, their ability to enhance or suppress mutant phenotypes caused by their insertion. The maize mutant hcf106 is a recessive pale green seedling lethal caused by the insertion of the transposable element Mu1. We show that the hcf106 mutant phenotype is suppressed in lines that have lost Mu activity. That is, homozygous hcf106 seedlings are dark green and viable when transposable elements belonging to the Robertson's Mutator family are modified in their terminal inverted repeats, a diagnostic feature of inactive lines. This property of the mutant phenotype has been used to follow clonal leaf sectors containing modified Mu elements that arise from single somatic cells during plant development. The distribution of these sectors indicates that epigenetic switches involving Mu DNA modification occur progressively as the meristem ages.
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