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Newly Discovered Proteins Show How Plants Have 'Memories'

© RIA Novosti . Larisa SaenkoTrees in blossom
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Biologists have discovered special molecules in plants that could explain a decades-old mystery of how plants can form memories.

For the first time ever, researchers have revealed that plants can remember, due to a distinctive inbuilt memory mechanism that enables them to repeatedly bloom and grow seasonally and to react during a drought, heat or prolonged cold. Three years of research and scanning of over 20,000 plants has led to the discovery of prion-like proteins that are capable of building molecular memories.

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Prions are a unique class of infectious proteins. Similarly to brain cells that store information by rearranging molecules in a specific form, prions can also change their shape to arrange protein molecules in a configuration to memorize things. Prions were detected in the early-1980s and play a role in the transmission of certain brain disorders. Several studies of fruit-flies and mice over the past five years have shown that prion-like proteins have the capability to maintain long-term memories.

"This is the first evidence that a plant protein may self-replicate as a prion — this opens up the possibility of protein-based memories in plants," said Indian biologist Dr. Sohini Chakrabortee, a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Prof. Susan Lindquist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. "It is these memories that allow plants to distinguish between a single night of cold and a long winter."

In their study, Chakrabortee and her colleagues searched a plant protein database and identified three proteins with prion-like properties involved in the flowering of plants — and found that at least one of these appears capable of forming molecular memories.

"Prions, we think, are responsible for some really broad, really interesting biology," said Prof. Lindquist. "We have only seen the tip of the iceberg so far."

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