Flowers might form 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, recalling information such as the best time to flowers and passing it on to their offspring. They have even been known to become “forgetful” – wiping out memories of past traumas.
But a new study shows that proteins called prions, which are responsible for degenerative illnesses in humans and animals, can also be used by plants to store memory. The same prions that cause human brains to suffer 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 prions for memory, and now have explored ways that plants do, too.
The team used the same techniques they had relied on to find prions in yeast, but turned them on to the flowering mustard plant. The scientists used a complex algorithm to explore all of the proteins that were found in the plant.
Prion proteins represent the best known way that organisms can store protein-based memory. 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 plants.
The team behind the discovery is uncertain about the exact role of the protein-like prion.
“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.
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.