Plants, as very adaptable organisms, possess an extraordinary ability to perceive and respond to their ever-changing environment. They can learn and adapt to their surroundings through an ability known as plant memory, which is essential for their survival in a changing world. A recently published review by Gabriela Auge and colleagues in AoB PLANTS explored the current state of knowledge on plant memory and suggested that plant memory is regulated through multiple fail-safe, plastic, and sometimes redundant mechanisms.
Plants receive and integrate environmental information through various mechanisms involving their roots, leaves, and flowers. This information can include the amount of light, water, and nutrients available, as well as the presence of predators or pathogens. Plants then use this information to adjust their growth and development in ways that favour fitness and survival. For example, during vernalization, plants go through a long period of cold temperatures, which helps them determine the right time to produce flowers. When this adjustment ability extends beyond individual plants and involves subsequent life stages and even future generations, it can be considered an environmental memory.
The intricate molecular mechanisms underlying plant memory are a subject of intense scientific inquiry. Recent research has revealed a multi-layered network of components involved in this phenomenon. From sensory perception to intracellular signalling pathways, a symphony of molecular events orchestrates the storage and retrieval of environmental information. By deciphering these mechanisms, researchers hope to gain a comprehensive understanding of how plants encode and retain memories of their surroundings.
Researchers also agree that exploring the evolutionary aspects of plant memory raises exciting questions about the ecological factors that drive its development. Various environmental pressures, such as fluctuating climate conditions, nutrient availability, and interactions with other organisms, contribute to selecting and maintaining memory-related traits.
Plant metabolism, the engine driving the conversion of sunlight and nutrients into energy and biomass, plays an integral role in the memory-forming process. Recent studies have highlighted the direct role of metabolic pathways in the establishment and recall of plant memory. By integrating metabolic regulation with molecular signalling, plants can fine-tune their responses to specific environmental cues, enhancing their chances of survival and successful reproduction.
To gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexities inherent in plant memory, scientists are also harnessing the power of mathematical modelling. By combining ecological, physiological, and developmental knowledge with molecular mechanisms, these models provide valuable insights into the workings of plant memory. They serve as tools for unravelling the complexities of adaptive responses and predicting plant behaviour under changing environmental conditions.
By uncovering the sophisticated molecular mechanisms and ecological requirements of plant memory, scientists are gaining a deeper understanding of how plants thrive in diverse environments. This interdisciplinary approach holds immense promise for managing plant communities in both natural ecosystems and agricultural settings. In their article, Auge and colleagues write:
Investigating how plant memory is established, transmitted, maintained, and dissipated requires a multilevel effort that may be constrained by researchers’ access to cutting-edge techniques. However, multidisciplinary approaches may facilitate our understanding of the mechanisms, their consequences at eco-evo levels, and their realized predictive and biotechnological potential.Auge et al. 2023
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Auge, G., Hankofer, V. Groth, M., Antoniou-Kourounioti R., Ratikainen I. and Lampei C. (2023) “Plant environmental memory: implications, mechanisms, and opportunities for plant scientists and beyond” AoB PLANTS. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plad032.