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Epigenetic Phenomena May Help Trees Cope with Global Warming
Volume 16, Number 37: 11 September 2013

Epigenetics, for those to whom the term may seem a bit foreign, is the study of changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype, caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, some of which have been shown to be heritable; and it is fast becoming the conceptual laboratory within which scientists are seeking to discover new means by which various plant species may survive potential future climate change.

In one such study of possible epigenetic regulation of adaptive responses of forest trees to environmental change, which was published earlier this year in Ecology and Evolution, Brautigam et al. (2013) provide what they describe as "a brief overview of recent data on epigenetic mechanisms involved in developmental processes and responses to environmental cues in forest species, as well as the implications of forest tree epigenetics to adaptation as a possible new source of beneficial traits for plant breeding and conservation in ecosystems responding to climate change."

In the course of this exercise, the seventeen researchers describe how "diverse environmental stresses and hybridization/polyploidization events can create reversible heritable epigenetic marks that can be transmitted to subsequent generations as a form of molecular 'memory'," and how "epigenetic changes might also contribute to the ability of plants to colonize or persist in variable environments." Furthermore, they report that genome-wide epigenetic patterns, referred to as epigenomes, are not static, and that they can undergo precise changes in many biological processes, including genetic imprinting, transposon silencing and regulation of gene expression.

In light of this growing wealth of knowledge, Brautigam et al. consider epigenetics to be "a new source of adaptive traits in plant breeding, biotechnology, and ecosystem conservation under rapid climate change." And they are confident in stating that "analysis of the epigenetics of forest tree species will significantly improve our understanding of the mechanisms underlying natural phenotypic variation, and the responses of organisms to environmental change," which anticipated discoveries, in their words, "may thereby inform efforts to manage and breed tree species to help them cope with environmental stresses."

Truly, it seems that the deeper we peer into the internal workings of earth's plant life, the more we are amazed at the wealth of sensory, evaluative and decision-making capabilities they appear to possess, which is likely why they are still with us here today ... and why we can expect them to be here tomorrow as well.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Brautigam, K., Vining, K.J., Lafon-Placette, C., Fossdal, C.G., Mirouze, M., Marcos, J.G., Fluch, S., Fraga, M.F., Guevara, M.A., Abarca, D., Johnsen, O., Maury, S., Strauss, S.H., Campbell, M.M., Rohde, A., Diaz-Sala, C. and Cervera, M.-T. 2013. Epigenetic regulation of adaptive responses of forest tree species to the environment. Ecology and Evolution 3: 399-415.