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Curr Opin Plant Biol. 2011 Jun;14(3):260-6. doi: 10.1016/j.pbi.2011.03.003. Epub 2011 Mar 26.

Genome instability and epigenetic modification--heritable responses to environmental stress?

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Institute of Plant Biology, Zurich, Switzerland.


As sessile organisms, plants need to continuously adjust their responses to external stimuli to cope with changing growth conditions. Since the seed dispersal range is often rather limited, exposure of progeny to the growth conditions of parents is very probable. The plasticity of plant phenotypes cannot be simply explained by genetic changes such as point mutations, deletions, insertions and gross chromosomal rearrangements. Since many environmental stresses persist for only one or several plant generations, other mechanisms of adaptation must exist. The heritability of reversible epigenetic modifications that regulate gene expression without changing DNA sequence makes them an attractive alternative mechanism. In this review, we discuss recent advances in understanding how changes in genome stability and epigenetically mediated changes in gene expression could contribute to plant adaptation. We provide examples of environmentally induced transgenerational epigenetic effects that include the appearance of new phenotypes in successive generations of stressed plants. We also describe several cases in which exposure to stress leads to nonrandom heritable but reversible changes in stress tolerance in the progeny of stressed plants.

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