B chromosomes in plants

Jones, N,  Plant Biosystems,  146:727-737. 2012.

B chromosomes (Bs) can be described as “selfish chromosomes”, a term that has been used for the repetitive DNA which comprises the bulk of the genome in large genome species, except that Bs have a life of their own as independent chromosomes. They can accumulate in number by various processes of mitotic or meiotic drive, especially in the gametophyte phase of the life cycle of flowering plants. This parasitic property of drive ensures their survival and spread in natural populations, even against a gradient of harmful effects on the host plant phenotype. B chromosomes are inhabitants of the nucleus and they are subject to control by “genes” in the A chromosome (As) complement. This interaction with the As, together with the balance between drive and harmful effects makes a dynamic system in the life of a Bs. In this review, we concentrate mainly on recent developments in the Bs of rye and maize, two of the species currently receiving most attention. We focus on their population dynamics and on the molecular basis of their structural organisation and mechanisms of drive, as well as on their mode of origin and potential applications in plant biotechnology.