Do your African violets remember when you forget to water them? Does a 100-year-old elm remember how it survived the Dust Bowl on the High Plains of Texas? Researchers at Texas Tech University say yes, and they keep the “memories” of these past experiences in the small RNA in their cells. Survivors then may pass this information on to their offspring. Understanding how plants remember the tough times, such as drought, could help scientists to create more drought- and heat-tolerant crops that can adapt to global climate change.
Chris Rock, associate professor of plant molecular genetics, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-3722 ext. 271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• While it’s true that plants don’t have brains or central nervous systems like animals, they do have chemical and electrical signaling abilities. A Venus flytrap signals the trap to close when they feel an insect inside.
• Plants and animals have small RNA contained in their cells. Originally discovered in plant cells in the 1990s and believed to be junk, scientists now believe that RNA in animals and humans plays a role in memory.
• When a plant is stressed, say by too much heat or too little water, the plant’s cells must work to keep the plant alive and may modify the cell’s metabolism.
• If the plant is successful, these cellular adjustments may be “remembered” by the cell’s small RNA, and can be recalled if the same experience should happen again. These experiences may, in turn, be passed down to a plant’s progeny.
• “It’s been shown in mammals including humans that small RNAs are really important in functioning of nervous system and particularly brain cells. It’s not thought that small RNAs are somehow processing information.”
• “As global climate change becomes a greater issue in the ensuing years, understanding plant memory could become more important. Humans depend on large agricultural industries to feed us, clothe us and drive our economy. A warmer overall climate could spell disaster not only for the industry, but for human survival as well.”