Breakthrough study reveals new insight into immortal plant cells

A new study has revealed an undiscovered reprogramming mechanism that allows plants to maintain fitness down the generations.

The John Innes Centre team led by Dr Xiaoqi Feng made the discovery when studying germ cells - cells specialised for sexual reproduction - in flowering plants. Germ cells are often referred to as “immortal” because they can pass their genetic material through the generations, and they have been the subject of much scientific scrutiny.

This study aimed to solve a long-term debate on whether the germ cells in plants undergo an event of DNA methylation reprogramming at each reproductive cycle.

Published today in Nature Genetics, the team led by Dr Xiaoqi Feng from the John Innes Centre in collaboration with Dr James Higgins from our University reveal for the first time the existence of DNA methylation changes in the germline of flowering plants.

They also reveal the mechanism by which this reprogramming happens - via a process known as de novo (anew) DNA methylation and its biological significance in maintaining reproductive success.

Dr Higgins said: “Disrupting the de novo methylation pathway also led to mis-splicing of a gene required during meiosis (a reproductive cell division) to aid the attachment of chromosomes to the cytoskeleton, thus forming daughter cells with double the number of chromosomes.

“Therefore it is clear that epigenetic reprogramming is required to re-set methylation of the immortal germ cells as well as regulating aspects of gene regulation during reproduction in the flowering plant Arabidopsis”.