Animals can quickly adapt to survive adverse environmental conditions. There is growing evidence that plants can do the same. A publication in the magazine Trends in plant science on 17 November describes how plants rapidly adapt to the adverse effects of climate change and how they pass these adaptations on to their offspring.
“One day I thought how a person’s lifestyle and experience can influence his or her gametes that pass on molecular characteristics of their lives to their children,” said Federico Martinelli, a plant geneticist at the University of Florence. “I immediately thought that even more epigenetic marks had to be transferred in plants, since plants are sessile organisms that are exposed to much more environmental stress during their lifetime than animals.”
Plants are dealing with environmental stressors more than ever. For example, climate change is causing winters to become shorter and less severe in many places, and plants are responding to this. “Many plants need a minimum cold period to set their environmental clock to determine their flowering time,” says Martinelli. “As cold seasons get shorter, plants have adapted to need fewer cold spells to delay flowering. These mechanisms allow plants to avoid flowering during periods when they have fewer chances to reproduce.”
Since plants do not have neural networks, their memory is based entirely on cellular, molecular and biochemical networks. These networks form what the researchers call somatic memory. “These mechanisms allow plants to recognize the occurrence of a previous environmental condition and respond more quickly in the presence of the same consequential condition,” says Martinelli.
These somatic memories can then be passed on to the plant’s progeny via epigenetics. “We have highlighted key genes, proteins and small oligonucleotides, which previous studies have shown play a key role in the memory of abiotic stresses such as drought, salinity, cold, heat, and heavy metal and pathogen attacks,” says Martinelli. “In this peer-reviewed opinion piece, we provide several examples demonstrating the existence of molecular mechanisms that modulate plant memory for environmental stress and influence offspring adaptation to this stress.”
In the future, Martinelli and his colleagues hope to understand even more about the genes that are passed on. “We are particularly interested in deciphering the epigenetic alphabet that underlies all environmental modifications of the genetic material, without changes in the DNA sequence,” he says. “This is especially important when considering the rapid climate change we are seeing today, to which every living organism, including plants, must rapidly adapt in order to survive.”
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