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Prion-like proteins help guide plants to know when to bloom

With flowers blooming and plants finally producing their first leaves of the season, it can make one ask the following: how do plants know when to bloom? Scientists at the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research may have a lead on this question.  While studying Arabidopsis thaliana, they identified over 500 proteins in the species that have potential prion-like domains (PrDs). Of all of these proteins, Luminidependens PrD was one of the proteins that had traits similar to prions and could play a role in the plant’s response and memory with regards to seasonal environmental changes.

Prion proteins are thought to give a unique ability of biochemical memory, which has been studied in both mammals and fungi. Before the researchers at Whitehead discovered the Luminidependens PrD, there had been no known prions that existed in a plant model. When this protein was tested in a yeast model, it displayed all the functions of the yeast prion Sup35, which has been extensively studied. This PrD formed higher-order oligomers, which is similar to the function of prions in the yeast model.


The conformational switches that prions catalyze can lead to a variety of different outcomes. These scientists believe that in plants, the prions can aide in the response to seasonal changes and events, such as flowering every spring. The ability for plants to have a “memory,” from year to year is thought to be possible through the use of prions.  From season to season, plants will respond and regulate themselves differently based on their past experiences. Based on the researchers’ findings, these conformational changes in the proteins seem to be evolutionarily conserved and according to the researchers, could extend beyond the flowering and into different biological processes as well.


Chakrabortee, Sohini, et al. "Luminidependens (LD) is an Arabidopsis protein with prion behavior." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016): 201604478.

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