Tomato HsfA1a plays a critical role in plant drought tolerance by activating ATG genes and inducing autophagy

Autophagy plays critical roles in plant responses to stress. In contrast to the wealth of information concerning the core process of plant autophagosome assembly, our understanding of the regulation of autophagy is limited. In this study, we demonstrated that transcription factor HsfA1a played a critical role in tomato tolerance to drought stress, in part through its positive role in induction of autophagy under drought stress. HsfA1a expression was induced by drought stress. Virus-induced HsfA1a gene silencing reduced while its overexpression increased plant drought tolerance based on both symptoms and membrane integrity. HsfA1a-silenced plants were more sensitive to endogenous ABA-mediated stomatal closure, while its overexpression lines were resistant under drought stress, indicating that phytohormone ABA did not play a major role in HsfA1a-induced drought tolerance. On the other hand, HsfA1a-silenced plants increased while its overexpression decreased the levels of insoluble proteins which were highly ubiquitinated under drought stress. Furthermore, drought stress induced numerous ATGs expression and autophagosome formation in wild-type plants. The expression of ATG10 and ATG18f, and the formation of autophagosomes were compromised in HsfA1a-silenced plants but were enhanced in HsfA1a-overexpressing plants. Both electrophoretic mobility shift assay and chromatin immunoprecipitation coupled with qPCR analysis revealed that HsfA1a bound to ATG10 and ATG18f gene promoters. Silencing of ATG10 and ATG18f reduced HsfA1a-induced drought tolerance and autophagosome formation in plants overexpressing HsfA1a. These results demonstrate that HsfA1a induces drought tolerance by activating ATG genes and inducing autophagy, which may promote plant survival by degrading ubiquitinated protein aggregates under drought stress.