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Mother plants teach seeds about seasons and give them a thicker coat when it's cold

Copyright: John Innes Centre
News from: The John Innes Centre

New research by Dr Steve Penfield from the John Innes Centre has found that 'mother' plants remember the seasons and use this memory to teach their seeds the time of year and tell them when they should germinate.

Copyright: John Innes Centre
Copyright: John Innes Centre

In his study of Arabidopsis thaliana, a common weed often used as a model for plant research, Dr Penfield found that the mother plant plays an important role in sensing temperature and forms a long term temperature memory which she uses to control the behaviour of her progeny seeds. These temperature memories enable seeds to determine time of year and modify their germination rates to ensure that their growth and development is coordinated with the seasons.

If the mother experiences warmer temperatures, it produces more of a protein called Flowering Locus T (FT for short) which in the fruit of the plant, represses production of tannins, making seed coats thinner and more permeable, meaning they will germinate quicker.

Conversely if the mother plant experiences cooler temperatures prior to flowering it will produce less FT protein in its fruit and therefore produce more tannins. Seed coats will be thicker and less permeable and will germinate later. In this way the mother plant can manipulate seed germination to be optimal for the time of year.

We know that if the environment during seed production is not optimal this can result in poor germination. With climate change making suboptimal conditions more frequent, having a better understanding how plants communicate with their seeds will help us optimise seed quality for crops and domestic use.

The research funded by the BBSRC and the Royal Society has implications for improving crop yields by helping us to adapt how our crops respond to changes in climate and temperature.

Dr Penfield of the John Innes Centre said: "By understanding how the mother plant uses temperature information to influence the vigour of her seeds we can begin to develop strategies for breeding seeds with more resilience to climate change."

The FT protein is known to influence when a plant flowers depending on the length of day. Dr Penfield's research went on to show the influence of this protein on seed dormancy was entirely separate from its influence on flowering time.


Notes to editors

The paper 'Maternal temperature history activates Flowering Locus T in fruits to control progeny dormancy according to time of year' will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on 15 December at 8pm GMT. It is available for journalists to view on embargo at

Images to accompany this press release are available at:

About the John Innes Centre

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature's diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

About the Royal Society

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world's most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society's fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

The Society's strategic priorities emphasise its commitment to the highest quality science, to curiosity-driven research, and to the development and use of science for the benefit of society. These priorities are:

  1. Promoting science and its benefits
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External contact

Geraldine Platten, Communications Manager, John Innes Centre & The Sainsbury Laboratory

+44 1603 450238

Tags: crops environmental change The John Innes Centre plants press release