Plants have a memory mechanism that could save them from climate change

Plants and trees are a lot like you and me.
Plants and trees are a lot like you and me.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Plants are not so different from us as they may seem. They get stressed and have memories, just like you and me. Their ability to remember the past tells them when conditions are right to blossom, and when it’s better to lie in wait.

Now scientists have new insight into the mechanisms behind greenery’s memory—which may enable humans to develop strains of plants that can adapt to climate change. A new study in Nature Communications from researchers at the universities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Oxford in England and Utrecht University in the Netherlands explores the function of certain proteins that are key to flowering plants’ ability to survive and thrive.

The researchers believe their findings have wider application beyond flowering plants specifically. The study could help lead to the creation of plant varieties of all kinds that are more environmentally sensitive and, as a result, more resilient under difficult, shifting conditions.

The scientists looked at the relationship between the complex protein cluster PRC2, which regulates plant activity, and a particular protein that’s part of this group, VRN2. They discovered that VRN2 is unstable and breaks down in warm temperatures, yet accumulates and stabilizes in the cold. It grows more abundant when conditions are difficult for plants and, when plentiful, it helps the PRC2 cluster to trigger blossoming as the weather gets better.

The research team compared how plants respond to both flooding and cold and found the same mechanisms at work. They believe that VRN2 directly senses and responds to environmental signals, ensuring that PRC2 doesn’t do its thing until the conditions are conducive.

“Plants have a remarkable ability to sense and remember changes in their environment, which allows them to control their life cycle,” the study’s lead author Daniel Gibbs of the University of Birmingham, tells By understanding how this sense works, scientists may be able to manipulate the proteins in new plant varieties to create more sensitive and adaptive growths. “It is possible that this mechanism could be targeted to help create plants that are better adapted to different environmental scenarios, which will be important in the face of climate change,” he says.

The researchers note that animals also have the PRC2 protein complex, but they appear not to have developed the protein VRN2, which seems key to plant “memory.” They posit that this may be because plants are rooted and can’t just pick up and go when conditions get rough. As such, plants likely evolved the VRN2 protein that functions as an environmental sense and then signals the PRC2 when it’s time to bloom.

Recent developments show that horticulture’s similarity to humans extends beyond merely having memory and feeling stress, making it all the more pressing for scientists to deepen their understanding of botanical sense mechanisms. Trees, it seems, also get confused. After extreme typhoons blew through Asia in September, many Japanese cherry blossoms unseasonably bloomed in autumn. Scientists suspect this was because, based on the weather, the trees erroneously believed that spring had sprung.