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Does Variable Epigenetic Inheritance Fuel Plant Evolution?

Mark A.A. Minow, Joseph Colasanti

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Epigenetic changes influence gene expression and contribute to the modulation of biological processes in response to the environment. Transgenerational epigenetic changes in gene expression have been described in many eukaryotes. However, plants appear to have a stronger propensity for inheriting novel epialleles. This mini-review discusses how plant traits, such as meristematic growth, totipotency, and incomplete epigenetic erasure in gametes promote epiallele inheritance. Additionally, we highlight how plant biology may be inherently tailored to reap the benefits of epigenetic metastability. Importantly, environmentally triggered small RNA expression and subsequent epigenetic changes may allow immobile plants to adapt themselves, and possibly their progeny, to thrive in local environments. The change of epigenetic states through the passage of generations has ramifications for evolution in the natural and agricultural world. In populations containing little genetic diversity, such as elite crop germplasm or habitually self-reproducing species, epigenetics may provide an important source of heritable phenotypic variation. Basic understanding of the processes that direct epigenetic shifts in the genome may allow for breeding or bioengineering for improved plant traits that do not require changes to DNA sequence.