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Epigenetics: Plants Give Climate Tips to Their Offspring

Updated: Feb 16

New analysis suggests that plants can pass on climate adaptation tips to their offspring. It's called epigenetics.

Flowers emerging in Spring

We already know the good news that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human activities has been causing the rate of photosynthesis in trees and plants to increase, leading them to grow bigger and fatter - and thus absorb more CO2.

Now scientists have cottoned on to another evolutionary feature of plants due to changing natural habitats all over the world. To survive and thrive, many plants have been forced to adapt, new research published in the Trends in Plant Science journal indicates.

They then transmit these new traits on to their offspring, says Federico Martinelli, a plant geneticist at the University of Florence who notes that changes in the environment forces animals to change, altering their hunting and hibernation patterns and moving habitats. Plants are sessile (rooted to the spot) - but they change, too.

For example, winters - which plants use to orient their flowering time - have become warmer and shorter in many regions. “Many plants require a minimum period of cold in order to set up their environmental clock to define their flowering time,” says Martinelli.

“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.”

Plants don’t make memories in the same way that humans do, but they nonetheless remember. Rather than storing memories in brains (neural networks), they store them in sophisticated cellular and molecular signalling networks. Researchers call this a ‘somatic memory.'

“These mechanisms allow plants to recognise the occurrence of a previous environmental condition and to react more promptly in the presence of the same consequential condition,” says Martinelli.

For example, a plant can remember to delay flowering when warmer. It will pass this trait down to its offspring through something researchers call epigenetics. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes do not change a DNA sequence. Instead, they can change how an organism reads a DNA sequence.

“Epigenetic modifications are inherited… thereby contributing to the long-term adaptation of plant species to climate change,” the paper’s authors write.

The research will help scientists understand how plant intelligence is battling climate change and the rest of us have just learnt a raft of new words.

Trees viewed from below


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