The structure and expression of a senescence-associated gene (SPG31) encoding a cysteine proteinase precursor of sweet potato have been characterized. The coding region of the gene consists of two exons encoding an enzyme precursor of 341 amino acids with conserved catalytic amino acids of papain. Examination of the expression patterns of the SPG31 gene in sweet potato by Northern blot analyses reveals that the transcripts of SPG31 are specifically induced in the senescing leaves but not in other organs. The differential accumulation of the mature SPG31 protein in the senescing leaves was further identified by two-dimensional electrophoresis of leaf proteins and N-terminal sequencing. This result suggests the important role played by SPG31 in proteolysis and nitrogen remobilization during the leaf senescence process. Furthermore, treatment of mature green leaves with ethylene for 3 d resulted in a high-level induction of SPG31 transcripts. Ethylene-regulated expression of SPG31 is consistent with the presence of a number of putative ethylene-responsive elements in the 899-bp SPG31 promoter region.
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