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Plant Cell Physiol. 2012 May;53(5):801-8. doi: 10.1093/pcp/pcs044. Epub 2012 Mar 28.

Stress-induced chromatin changes: a critical view on their heritability.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne, Germany. pecinka@mpipz.mpg.de


The investigation of stress responses has been a focus of plant research, breeding and biotechnology for a long time. Insight into stress perception, signaling and genetic determinants of resistance has recently been complemented by growing evidence for substantial stress-induced changes at the chromatin level. These affect specific sequences or occur genome-wide and are often correlated with transcriptional regulation. The majority of these changes only occur during stress exposure, and both expression and chromatin states typically revert to the pre-stress state shortly thereafter. Other changes result in the maintenance of new chromatin states and modified gene expression for a longer time after stress exposure, preparing an individual for developmental decisions or more effective defence. Beyond this, there are claims for stress-induced heritable chromatin modifications that are transmitted to progeny, thereby improving their characteristics. These effects resemble the concept of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters and represent a challenge to the uniqueness of DNA sequence-based inheritance. However, with the growing insight into epigenetic regulation and transmission of chromatin states, it is worth investigating these phenomena carefully. While genetic changes (mainly transposon mobility) in response to stress-induced interference with chromatin are well documented and heritable, in our view there is no unambiguous evidence for transmission of exclusively chromatin-controlled stress effects to progeny. We propose a set of criteria that should be applied to substantiate the data for stress-induced, chromatin-encoded new traits. Well-controlled stress treatments, thorough phenotyping and application of refined genome-wide epigenetic analysis tools should be helpful in moving from interesting observations towards robust evidence.

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