A Missouri leader in the agricultural biotech sphere, Thomas Tom Brutnell consults and serves as vice president at Gateway Biotechnology, Inc. For his thesis research at Yale University, Thomas Brutnell undertook a molecular genetic analysis of transposable elements in plants and focused on the epigenetic regulation of the transposable maize Activator/Dissociation (Ac/Ds) elements.
Not limited to plants, epigenetic regulation of genes is a process where their activity is controlled by the structure of chromatin (a material made up of protein, RNA, and DNA). However, epigenetic regulation in plants differs in important ways from animals. With mammals, most tissue and organ formation occurs during embryonic development. By contrast, plants continuously generate new organs from meristems (self-sustaining stem cell populations), enabling growth. This exposes the plant germline to many more challenges over time that a typical mammalian system. For instance, the meristems of a 200 year old tree are experiencing CO2 concentrations today that are nearly double the levels when it germinated and the associated extreme environmental variation associated with climate change!
Plants cannot leave their environments and must cope with variable and unfavorable conditions. Epigenetic regulatory mechanisms enable metastable alterations in gene activity and influence gene expression patterns, allowing plants to survive and reproduce in diverse environments. Polyploidization is one key aspect that contributes to epigenetic regulation. It expands the plant’s sets of chromosomes, strengthening gene families and enabling functional specializations among duplicated genes.