Animals are able to quickly adapt to changing environmental conditions and survive. There is growing evidence that plants can, too. A study detailing how plants are quickly adapting to the negative effects of climate change and how they are transmitting these adaptations to their offspring was published in the journal Trends in Plant Science on November 17th, 2022.
One day I thought how the living style and experience of a person can affect his or her gametes transmitting molecular marks of their life into their children. Immediately I thought that even more epigenetic marks must be transmitted in plants, being that plants are sessile organisms that are subjected to many more environmental stresses than animals during their life.”
Federico Martinelli, Plant Geneticist, University of Florence
Environmental stressors are now more prevalent than ever for plants. For instance, plants are adapting as a result of many locations having shorter and milder winters due to climate change.
“Many plants require a minimum period of cold in order to set up their environmental clock to define their flowering time. As cold seasons shorten, plants have adapted to require less period of cold to delay flowering. These mechanisms allow plants to avoid flowering in periods where they have less chances to reproduce,” Martinelli stated.
Plants do not have any neural networks, so all of their cellular, molecular, and biochemical networks are used to store their memories. The researchers refer to these networks as somatic memory.
Martinelli added, “These mechanisms allow plants to recognize the occurrence of a previous environmental condition and to react more promptly in presence of the same consequential condition.”
Epigenetics can then be used to transmit these somatic memories to the plants’ offspring.
“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 metals and pathogen attacks. In this peer-reviewed opinion piece, we provide several examples that demonstrate the existence of molecular mechanisms modulating plant memory to environmental stresses and affecting the adaptation of offspring to these stresses,” Martinelli continued.
Martinelli and his coworkers intend to continue learning more about the genes that are passed down.
He concluded, “We are particularly interested in decoding the epigenetic alphabet underlying all the modifications of the genetic material caused by the environment, without changes in DNA sequence. This is especially important when we consider the rapid climate change, we observe today that every living organism, including plants, needs to quickly adapt to in order to survive.”
Gallusci, P., et al. (2022). Deep inside the epigenetic memories of stressed plants. Trends in Plant Science. doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2022.09.004