High Level of Epigenomic Diversity May Aid Plant Adaptation

Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, have identified patterns of epigenomic diversity that not only allow plants to adapt to various environments, but could also benefit crop production and the study of human diseases. Published online on March 6, 2013 in Nature, the findings show that in addition to genetic diversity found in plants throughout the world, their epigenomic makeup is as varied as the environments in which they are found. Epigenomics is the study of the pattern of chemical markers that serve as a regulatory layer on top of the DNA sequence. Depending on where they grow, the plants' epigenomic differences may allow them to rapidly adapt to their environments. Epigenomic modifications alter gene expression without changing the letters of the DNA alphabet (A-T-C-G), providing cells with an additional tool to fine-tune how genes control the cellular machinery. These changes occur not only in plants, but in humans as well. "We looked at plants collected from around the world and found that their epigenomes are surprisingly different," says senior author Dr. Joseph R. Ecker, a professor in Salk's Plant Biology Laboratory and holder of the Salk International Council Chair in Genetics. "This additional diversity may create a way for plants to rapidly adapt to diverse environments without any genetic change in their DNA, which takes a very long time." By understanding epigenomic alterations in plants, scientists may be able to manipulate them for various purposes, including biofuels and creating crops that can withstand stressful events such as drought.
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