Mangrove trees

Plant epigenetics

Plants pass along traits they acquire during their lifetime

Epigenetics is a branch of genetics that deals with how DNA is expressed in cells: which genes are switched on or off, and if they’re on, the degree to which they are active. Expression is controlled by packaging and chemical modifications to the DNA that don’t affect the genetic code itself. In humans, scientists are exploring whether the epigenetic changes that we acquire in our lifetimes – for example, as a result of eating a certain diet – can be passed on to our children.

The same question can be asked of plants: do they inherit traits that their parents acquired in their lifetimes? In one 2010 study, plant biologists scrutinised the DNA of mangrove trees of the same species growing in different habitats. Near a riverside, these trees grew taller with larger leaves, while those near a salt marsh survived by staying squat and producing smaller leaves. The two groups’ DNA codes were very similar, but what was different was the pattern of DNA methylation – a type of chemical modification to DNA. The scientists suggested that these epigenetic changes helped the trees to adapt to their environment more quickly than waiting many generations for evolution to occur via genome mutations and natural selection.

Other studies also have found plants that use epigenetic regulation of their traits. Genetic screenings of the cress plant Arabidopsis suggest it could have 130 different regulators.

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Lead image:

Bachellier Christian/Flickr CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Genetics and genomics
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development