Staying Alive: How Plants Prepare for Winter

Image courtesy of Melissa Askew on Unsplash.

New Haven’s first red leaves have spun to the ground and the promise of autumn nears. Though it may seem like the plants are easing into the dormancy of winter, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. Yale researchers have identified a gene in Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant, that regulates the plant’s physiological response to winter-like seasons. 

The expression of this gene, PP2-A13, is triggered by a metabolic response to a change in daylength. As light wanes, a plant produces less photosynthetic outputs, like sucrose. These sucrose levels indicate to the plant that it is either summer or winter, and PP2-A13 is respectively repressed or expressed. The PP2-A13 gene is lifesaving for a plant in the wintertime. It ensures cellular health, prevents vegetative growth, and breaks down cellular components for storage. “These plants aren’t dormant; they’re racing to save. It’s like the harvest before a long winter,” said Joshua Gendron, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and an author of the study published in Developmental Cell

Though the humble Arabidopsis was the subject of this study, it may have far-reaching consequences. “My thought is that this is going to be pretty fundamental to all plants,” Gendron said. If so, this newfound understanding of plant growth during wintertime processes can inform genetic editing for agricultural applications and result in longer growing seasons. 

PP2-A13’s universality would also make many native plants equally susceptible to climate change. If the duration of seasons changes as a result of global warming, the plants’ predictive mechanism breaks down, alters growing seasons, and diverges reproductive cycles from the habits of pollinators. Global warming has a disproportionately large effect on winter, making it important that we expand our knowledge of wintertime processes in plants and related ecological implications.