Modification of DNA methylation status is one of the mechanisms used by plants to adjust gene expression at both the transcriptional and posttranscriptional levels when plants are exposed to suboptimal conditions. Under abiotic stress, different cultivars often show heritable phenotypic variation accompanied by epigenetic polymorphisms at the DNA methylation level. This variation may provide the raw materials for plant breeding programs that aim to enhance abiotic stress tolerance, including salt tolerance. In this study, methylation-sensitive amplified polymorphism (MSAP) analysis was used to assess cytosine methylation levels in alfalfa (Medicago spp) roots exposed to increasing NaCl concentrations (0.0, 8.0, 12.0, and 20.0 dS/m). Eleven indigenous landraces were analyzed, in addition to a salt-tolerant cultivar that was used as a control. There was a slight increase in DNA methylation upon exposure to high levels of soil salinity. Phylogenetic analysis using MSAP showed epigenetic variation within and between the alfalfa landraces when exposed to saline conditions. Based on MSAP and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay results, we found that salinity increased global DNA methylation status, particularly in plants exposed to the highest level of salinity (20 dS/m). Quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction indicated that this might be mediated by the overexpression of methyltransferase homolog genes after exposure to saline conditions. DNA demethylation using 5-azacytidine reduced seedling lengths and dry and fresh weights, indicating a possible decrease in salinity tolerance. These results suggest that salinity affects DNA methylation flexibility.
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