Epigenetic changes in plants could help produce food crops better suited to harsh environments

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Comparison of growth differences in wild-type (left) and growth-repressor mutant (right) Arabidopsis plants.

The sequence of genes passed on to daughter cells or offspring isn’t the only factor that determines the traits of cells and organisms. Chemical changes in the genetic material that do not alter the underlying DNA sequence also play a role in controlling which genes are active or inactive. Methylation is one such epigenetic mark, which involves the addition of small chemical groups to specific bases in the DNA.

Plant biologists at the University of Zurich have now demonstrated that naturally occurring epigenetic variation in mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) is subject to selection. The team of Ueli Grossniklaus at the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology also showed that newly selected traits – which are important for seed dispersal – are passed on for at least two to three generations even without selection. “Epigenetic variation thus contributes to the ability of plants to quickly adapt to changes in the environment without sequence changes in the genome,” explains Grossniklaus.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Biotech industry should rebuild EU's trust in science to foster farming innovation

Since the genetic basis of crops is often very limited, epigenetics could be used to expand the material for plant breeding,” emphasizes Grossniklaus. Climate change is likely to alter the environmental conditions in many of the world’s regions within a short period of time. Plant species that can quickly adapt to changes are thus becoming increasingly important.

Read full, original article: Exploiting Epigenetic Variation for Plant Breeding

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