Carlos Rodríguez López is delving into how plants use memory to respond to their environment.
López joined CAFE’s horticulture faculty almost a year ago. With a new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he is continuing research he conducted in Australia. There, he studied how plants respond to the environment and, in the case of grapevines, how they accumulate experience.

“Older plants produce a higher quality fruit than younger plants when grown under the same environmental conditions. Our research shows that is due to epigenetic memory,” he said.
To survive and thrive, all living things need to cope with changes in their environment. Epigenetic memory is one of the molecular mechanisms that can change gene expression in response to a situation without affecting the actual sequence of those genes.

Stress is one of those situations. Exposed to the same stress later, plants cope better because they “remember.”

“It’s not memory in the sense we remember events, but this mechanism responds based on previous exposure,” López said.

He is now looking at how asexual reproduction using dormant cuttings (the way grapevines are commercially propagated) affects the plant’s epigenetic memory and if that affects how well the new plant responds in a new environment. In an earlier study using the model plant Arabidopsis, he found that not only can plants remember, but when propagated through seeds, offspring of sexual reproduction also remember and respond slightly better to the same or similar stress.

López hopes his work will result in more vibrant Kentucky vineyards and, ultimately, better wines for the consumer.

— Carol Lea Spence