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Plants have an incredible knack for greening and flowering in sync with the seasons. We’ve been trying to figure out how they do it for years, and now, scientists have uncovered evidence that memory is involved.
Of course, we aren’t talking about memories stored in neurons. It’s something much stranger.
Misfolded proteins called prions—which lead to personality changes, dementia, and death in humans—may serve as a type of long-term memory in plants. That’s the fascinating possibility raised by a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, which shows that a plant protein involved in responding to light and temperature may have shapeshifting, prion-like powers, allowing it to form environmental memories that can distinguish a single cold night from a shift in seasons.
Prion proteins provide the best-understood mode for protein-based molecular memory. Since their discovery in mammals, prions have been identified in diverse organisms including fungi, Aplysia, and Drosophila, but not in the plant kingdom. Applying methods we used to uncover yeast prions, we identified nearly 500 Arabidopsis proteins that harbor potential prion-like domains (PrDs). At least one of these domains, Luminidependens PrD, had some of the classical characteristics of prion proteins when tested experimentally in yeast, making it, to our knowledge, the first protein from the plant kingdom with bona fide prion attributes. Importantly, Luminidependens is involved in the process of flowering, a crucial development course that integrates several internal and external cues, including memories of winter, for its regulation.
Kausik Si and Dr. Kandel first identified functional prions in the giant sea slug (Aplysia) and found they contribute to the maintenance of memory storage. More recently, the Kandel laboratory searched for and found a similar protein in mice, called CPEB3.
In one of many experiments described in the paper by Luana Fioriti, the researchers challenged mice to repeatedly navigate a maze, allowing the animals to create a long-term memory. But when the researchers knocked out the animal’s CPEB3 gene two weeks after the memory was made, the memory disappeared.
The researchers then discovered how CPEB3 works inside the neurons to maintain long-term memories. “Like disease-causing prions, functional prions come in two varieties, a soluble form and a form that creates aggregates,” said. Kandel. “When we learn something and form long-term memories, new synaptic connections are made, the soluble prions in those synapses are converted into aggregated prions. The aggregated prions turn on protein synthesis necessary to maintain the memory.”
As long as these aggregates are present, Kandel says, long-term memories persist. Prion aggregates renew themselves by continually recruiting newly made soluble prions into the aggregates. “This ongoing maintenance is crucial,” said Dr. Kandel. “It’s how you remember, for example, your first love for the rest of your life.”