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Mind = blown. Plants may have memories, says game-changing new research

Asad Ali | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

We think of memory as a uniquely human ability. But new research in plant biology is blowing our minds with a new possibility - that plants, too, might 'remember'. 

A research team affiliated with the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have discovered a prion-like protein in a plant (Arabidopsis thaliana, a flowering mustard plant) that substantiates this belief. The findings have been published as part of a research paper in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

What exactly are prions? They're a type of protein that can change shape and increase in number by making other molecules around them take on a similar shape, resulting in clusters of the same kind of protein.

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An Indian biologist Sohini Chakrabortee, one of the lead authors of the paper, spent three years sifting through more than 20,000 proteins in plants from the mustard family. The major find was when one plant protein was isolated that behaved like a prion, with the ability to develop molecular memories.

"When we talk about plant memories, we mean the plant that has a memory responds differently to a stimulus compared to a plant that has never experienced this before," says Can Kayatekin, a post-doctoral associate and Whitehead-MIT team member, in The Telegraph.

A simple example of such memories could be when the plant can discern a sudden burst of cold temperature and differentiate it from actual onset of winter which preceeds flowering based on previous exposure to seasons.

"This is the first evidence that a plant protein may self-replicate as a prion - this opens up the possibility of protein-based memories in plants," Chakrabortee told The Telegraph.

Prions were detected in the early 80s to 90s, mostly in fungi and mammals, but now discovered for the first time in plants. The protein was linked to a number of neurodegenerative brain disorders, most infamously mad cow disease. But recent work over the past five odd years, especially on mice and fruit flies, has linked the same protein to the ability to sustain long-term memories in animals.

There have been studies before on prions and their correlation with memory in plants. Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel of Columbia University has also worked and suggested that prions or prion-like proteins can help develop memories. 

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As recently as last year, in a media statement released by Columbia University, Kandel said "prion aggregates renew themselves continually recruiting new prions into the aggregates - this maintenance is crucial for memories."

In fact Chakrabortee and her team discovered four proteins in the mustard plant that had segments resembling prion-specific sequences. But despite strong evidence, researchers are trying to not let their enthusiasm get the better of them. Susan Lindquist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told New Scientist that, "We don't know what it's actually doing in the plant, so we are trying to be cautious. That's why we call it prion-like." But she also added that, "These proteins are responsible for some really broad, really interesting biology... we've only seen the tip of the iceberg so far."

What will be the fallout of this research as and when it becomes conclusive? Far reaching, including at the most fundamental level: our separation of plants and animals as inanimate and animate. There may be a new ethical debate in town.

Edited by Payal Puri

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First published: 28 April 2016, 4:57 IST
Asad Ali @asadali1989

Asad Ali is another cattle class journalist trying to cover Current affairs and Culture when he isn't busy not saving the world.