Article image

Plants pass down memories to help offspring survive

In a study published by Cell Press, experts describe how plants use epigenetic memories to adapt to climate change. Plants store memories of environmental stressors so that when these conditions occur again in the future, they will know how to respond. Remarkably, plants also pass these memories along to their offspring.

“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,” said Federico Martinelli, a plant geneticist at the University of Florence. “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.”

Climate change is presenting plants with an increasing number of environmental stressors. For example, winters have become warmer and shorter in many regions, and plants must respond accordingly.

“Many plants require a minimum period of cold in order to set up their environmental clock to define their flowering time,” said 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 do not have neural networks, so their memory is based on cellular, molecular, and biochemical networks. Experts refer to these collective networks and experiences as a plant’s “somatic” memory, which can be passed along to future generations through epigenetics.

“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,” said Martinelli.

“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.”

Through further research, Martinelli and his colleagues hope to understand even more about the genes that are being passed down. 

“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.”

The study is published in the journal Trends in Plant Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day