Flowers might have memories because of mad cow disease proteins

Prions are well known for causing degenerative illnesses in animals and humans – but might serve an entirely different purpose in plants

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 27 April 2016 17:53
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A giant head made of flowers
A giant head made of flowers

Flowers might form their memories because of the protein that causes mad cow disease, according to a new study.

Plants have long been observed to have something like memory, remembering information like when is the best time to flower and passing that information on to their offspring. They have even been known to become “forgetful” – wiping out memories of past traumas if they are causing problems.

But a new study shows that prion proteins, which are responsible for degenerative illnesses in humans animals, can be used by plants to store memory. The same prions that cause human brains to suffer such horrible problems with mad cow disease, for instance, may help plants store things as memory and so allow them to make the most of their environment.

The findings come from new research conducted by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That team had already found that yeast could use the prions for memory, and now have explored the ways that plants do, too.

They used the same techniques they had relied on to find prions in yeast, but turned them onto the flowering mustard plant. The scientists used a complex algorithm to explore all of the proteins that were expressed in the plant.

Prion proteins represent the best known way that organisms can store protein-based memory. So the research, which found that the same proteins behaved like they did in yeast, could be a big step towards understanding how exactly memory functions for planets.

The team behind the discovery are uncertain about committing to the fact that the protein is a prion, because though the protein behaves it is one they can’t be sure that it is.

“We don’t know what it’s actually doing in the plant, so we are trying to be cautious,” Susan Lindquist, who worked on the study, told the New Scientist. “That’s why we call it prion-like.”

She also said that further discoveries could be made about the ways that prions function in plants, and that they “are responsible for some really broad, really interesting biology”.

“We have only seen the tip of the iceberg so far,” she told the magazine.

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