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Different subpopulations of a plant species can have distinct traits, varying in size, seed count, coloration, and so on. The primary source of this variation is genes: different versions of a gene can lead to different traits. However, genes are not the only determinant of such traits, and researchers are learning more about another contributor: epigenetics. Epigenetic factors are things that regulate genes, altering their expression, and like genes they can be inherited from generation to generation, even though they are independent of the actual DNA sequences of the genes.
One epigenetic mechanism is DNA methylation, in which the addition of chemical tags called methyl groups can turn genes on or off. Genes that share the identical DNA sequence but have different patterns of methylation are called epialleles. Several studies have shown that epialleles, like different versions of genes, can cause differences in traits between plant subpopulations, or strains, but whether genetic factors are also at play can be difficult to determine.
Lab - Whitehead - Member - Mary - Gehring
The lab of Whitehead Member Mary Gehring, who is also an associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has described evidence that epialleles alone can lead to different heritable traits in plants. In research published online November 5 in the journal PLoS Genetics, Gehring, along with co-first authors and former lab members Daniela Pignatta and Katherine Novitzky, showed that altering the methylation state of the gene HDG3 in different strains of the plant Arabidopsis thaliana was enough to cause changes in seed weight and in the timing of certain aspects of seed development.
In plants, methylation states of genes change most frequently during seed development, when genes are switched on or off to progress development of the organism. This period is also when a conflict of interest arises in the genome of each seed between the parts inherited from its mother...
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