Strawberries ‘Remember’ Heat and Other Stress

Changins, 01.09.2022 - No memory without a brain? That’s not quite true, as shown by an Agroscope study of woodland strawberry: heat and other stress situations influence the DNA of the plants. The resulting changes can help forearm strawberries against subsequent stress situations – they ‘remember’.

With ongoing climate change, plants are faced by stress situations more frequently and at shorter intervals: heat, drought, intense precipitation events, but also cold and altered soil salinity. All of this negatively impacts many plants, including some of our crops. Plants have developed various strategies to adapt to these changed conditions. One of these strategies involves altering their DNA.

Stress alters plant DNA

In the EU project ‘EpiDiverse’, Agroscope studies whether and how stress influences the DNA of woodland strawberry. For this, researchers exposed the strawberry plants to various stress situations and studied their epigenetics. Epigenetics describes changes occurring at the DNA level thereby influencing gene activity yet without modifications in the actual DNA sequence itself. The study shows that all of the tested stressors, but heat stress in particular, led to epigenetic changes in the DNA of woodland strawberry.

Are the adaptations heritable?

The study also shows that the observed changes persist for a certain time. They may help the plant cope with stress, so that it is better able to deal with the stressor the next time it is encountered. The plants can ‘remember’, so to speak. This also means that, in addition to natural mutation, plants have a further, dynamic way of adapting to changed environmental conditions.

The next step for Agroscope researchers is to investigate how long plants ‘remember’ stress. They are also addressing the question of whether these traits can be passed on to subsequent generations – and if so, across how many generations. Later, it may be possible to apply these findings to other crops as well, thereby helping them to adapt to heat or other stress situations.

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