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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


The plant hormone cytokinin regulates numerous growth and developmental processes. A signal transduction pathway for cytokinin has been elucidated that is similar to bacterial two-component phosphorelays. In Arabidopsis, this pathway is comprised of receptors that are similar to sensor histidine kinases, histidine-containing phosphotransfer proteins, and response regulators (ARRs). There are two classes of response regulators, the type-A ARRs, which act as negative regulators of cytokinin responses, and the type-B ARRs, which are transcription factors that play a positive role in mediating cytokinin-regulated gene expression. Here we show that several closely related members of the Arabidopsis AP2 gene family of unknown function are transcriptionally up-regulated by cytokinin through this pathway, and we have designated these AP2 genes CYTOKININ RESPONSE FACTORS (CRFs). In addition to their transcriptional regulation by cytokinin, the CRF proteins rapidly accumulate in the nucleus in response to cytokinin, and this relocalization depends on the histidine kinases and the downstream histidine-containing phosphotransfer proteins, but is independent of the ARRs. Analysis of loss-of-function mutations reveals that the CRFs function redundantly to regulate the development of embryos, cotyledons, and leaves. Furthermore, the CRFs mediate a large fraction of the transcriptional response to cytokinin, affecting a set of cytokinin-responsive genes that largely overlaps with type-B ARR targets. These results indicate that the CRF proteins function in tandem with the type-B ARRs to mediate the initial cytokinin response. Thus, the evolutionarily ancient two-component system that is used by cytokinin branches to incorporate a unique family of plant-specific transcription factors.