Do plants have memories? We don’t fully understand how they know when to produce beautiful flowers in the spring or shed their leaves in the fall, but researchers may be one step closer to an answer. They have discovered what may be prions in plants. Prions are proteins that change shape and have been found in animals and humans mammals, but never before in plants. If plants do have prions, it could grant them the power of memory.
In humans, prions are typically bad news, often leading to disease and even death, but they could help plants. Biologist Susan Lindquist, contributor to the recently published study, showed four years ago that prions could benefit certain organisms such as yeast, aiding them in survival. There’s also evidence that in fruit flies, prions could assist in the development of long-term memory. So the process of these proteins changing shape – called misfolding – could have a different result in humans and plants, creating a method for plants to have something like memory.
The new research took a certain protein in thale cress, luminidepndens (LD), that works in plants to help them change according to the season. Her team introduced LD to yeast, and the protein appeared to misfold in a way similar to prions. If LD really does act like prions, it could help plants retain environmental information they gathered in years past so they know just when to grow leaves and flowers.
Lindquist’s primary research focus is on analyzing prions via yeast, and she intends to keep experimenting. She’s not yet certain that LD functions as prions do, but based on this evidence said she would be surprised if prions aren’t present in plants. To truly prove there are prions in plants, researchers would have to take a plant and identify prions in the various states of misfolding.