The accumulation of a number of small RNAs in plants is affected by abscisic acid (ABA) and abiotic stresses, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. The miR168-mediated feedback regulatory loop regulates ARGONAUTE1 (AGO1) homeostasis, which is crucial for gene expression modulation and plant development. Here, we reveal a transcriptional regulatory mechanism by which MIR168 controls AGO1 homeostasis during ABA treatment and abiotic stress responses in Arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana). Plants overexpressing MIR168a and the AGO1 loss-of-function mutant ago1-27 display ABA hypersensitivity and drought tolerance, while the mir168a-2 mutant shows ABA hyposensitivity and drought hypersensitivity. Both the precursor and mature miR168 were induced under ABA and several abiotic stress treatments, but no obvious decrease for the target of miR168, AGO1, was shown under the same conditions. However, promoter activity analysis indicated that AGO1 transcription activity was increased under ABA and drought treatments, suggesting that transcriptional elevation of MIR168a is required for maintaining a stable AGO1 transcript level during the stress response. Furthermore, we showed both in vitro and in vivo that the transcription of MIR168a is directly regulated by four abscisic acid-responsive element (ABRE) binding factors, which bind to the ABRE cis-element within the MIR168a promoter. This ABRE motif is also found in the promoter of MIR168a homologs in diverse plant species. Our findings suggest that transcriptional regulation of miR168 and posttranscriptional control of AGO1 homeostasis may play an important and conserved role in stress response and signal transduction in plants.
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