Can the nutrients your great-grandparents consumed impact your health today? This question has intrigued scientists for years, and recent research by Yan and colleagues published in the Journal of Plant Research brings us one step closer to an answer. By exploring how the long-term exposure of ancestral plants to different nutrient environments impacts their offspring’s performance, the study provides valuable insights into plant adaptation and evolutionary processes under changing nutrient conditions.
The availability of nutrients plays a significant role in regulating plant growth and metabolic functions. When plants are exposed to different nutrient environments, they may exhibit a range of phenotypic traits, such as altered flowering time, biomass, and biomass allocation fractions. This ability to change in response to environmental conditions is known as phenotypic plasticity.
Transgenerational plasticity, a specific form of phenotypic plasticity, refers to the ability of an organism to pass on adaptive traits to its offspring due to exposure to environmental stressors in previous generations. However, little is known about the extent to which the ancestral nutrient environments of plants impact their offspring’s phenotypic traits.
To explore this question, Yan and colleagues conducted an experiment using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Over eleven consecutive generations, they grew the ancestral plants in different nitrogen and phosphorus environments. The researchers then examined the offspring’s phenotypic performance under the interactive effects of current and ancestral nutrient environments.
The study found that the current nutrient environment, rather than the ancestral one, played a more significant role in explaining variations in offspring plant traits such as flowering time, aboveground biomass, and biomass allocation fractions. This result suggests that the transgenerational effects of ancestral nitrogen and phosphorus availability on offspring phenotypes are relatively weak.
In contrast, increasing nitrogen and phosphorus availability in the offspring generation considerably shortened the flowering time, increased aboveground biomass, and altered biomass allocation fractions among different plant organs. This highlights the strong influence of the current nutrient environment on plant traits.
However, the researchers did observe some transgenerational phenotypic plasticity. Under low nutrient conditions, the offspring of ancestral plants from the low-nutrient environment had a significantly higher fruit mass fraction compared to those from the suitable nutrient environment. This indicates that some adaptive traits may be passed on to the offspring in response to specific environmental conditions.
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Yan, Z., Tian, D., Han, W., Ji, C., Hou, X., Guo, Y. and Fang, J. (2023) “Weak transgenerational effects of ancestral nitrogen and phosphorus availabilities on offspring phenotypes in Arabidopsis thaliana,” Journal of Plant Research. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10265-023-01456-6.