Phenotypic and Developmental Plasticity in Plants


Plants have a remarkable ability to alter their development in response to myriad environmental cues or stress. This phenotypic plasticity allows them to continually adapt to their local environment, a necessity for plants as sessile organisms. A host of environmental cues can be interpreted by plants, including light, temperature and nutrients, and these inputs are integrated and translated into a range of developmental outputs from shoot elongation, regulation of root gravitropism, altered flowering time, growth cessation of leaves, and timing of germination. This plasticity enables growth optimisation for the local environment, allows range expansion into hetergeneous habitats, and may provide an advantage as the changing climate affects growth conditions around the globe. Using model organisms such as Arabidopsis, molecular mechanisms for plastic growth responses are becoming more defined. Studies of growth and plasticity in less‐characterized species could expand our knowledge of the range of plasticity present in nature.

Key Concepts:

  • Multiple environmental signals are integrated to regulate plant development.

  • Plasticity gives plants the ability to optimise growth in varied environments.

  • Developmental plasticity comes from the meristem, which continuously produces organs throughout the plant life cycle.

  • Environmental cues can lead to changes in mRNA and protein abundance or activity, or they can be stored as epigenetic changes.

  • Roots and shoots respond to different environmental conditions but employ similar cellular processes.

  • Plants’ ability to optimise growth for a local environment may provide an advantage as habitats are altered by the changing climate.

Keywords: phenotypic plasticity; developmental plasticity; plant development; climate change; flowering time; germination; plant morphology

Figure 1.

Phenotypic plasticity in animals and plants. (a) Spadefoot tadpoles display discrete alternate phenotypes in response to environmental factors such as food source. Reproduced with permission from Ledón‐Rettig and Pfennig Emerging model systems in eco‐evo‐devo: the environmentally responsive spadefoot toad. Evolution and Development: 391–400. (b, c) The Jeffery pine displays two extreme phenotypes in different environments, an upright growth habit characteristic of low wind conditions (b) and a flag‐formed habit typical of high wind conditions (c). A range of possible growth phenotypes can occur in response to environmental cues such as wind conditions. Reproduced with permission by (b) Jed and Bonnie McClellan © California Academy of Sciences, and (c) Charles Webber © California Academy of Sciences.

Figure 2.

Brassica rapa growth in simulated sun and shade conditions. Left, a plant grown under light with a high red‐to‐far‐red ratio, simulating growth in the sun. Right, a plant grown in light with a low red‐to‐far‐red ratio, such as that found under the shade canopy of neighbouring plants. Plants grown in the shade exhibit elongated internodes and petioles. This shade avoidance syndrome elevates a plant's leaves toward the light, giving it an advantage over shorter neighbours. Photo courtesy of Upendra Kumar Devisetty.

Figure 3.

Flooding response in rice. (a) A diagram of the elongation response in submerged rice plants. In dry conditions, water is maintained under the soil surface. In deep water (DW) conditions, water submerges the plant. Elongation occurs in the internodes, increasing the total internode elongation length (TIL) to raise the plant above the water's surface. (b) Plasticity of the phenotype in dry and DW conditions of the wild‐type rice line T65 and the near‐isogenic rice line NIL‐12. NIL‐12 differs from the T65 line in only a small region, shown in red. This region contains a major QTL associated with elongation, and includes the genes SNORKEL1 and SNORKEL2. (c) Quantification of the TIL growth seen in dry and DW conditions of the T65 and NIL‐12 genotypes shown in (b). Reproduced with permission from Hattori et al.. Copyright by Nature Publishing Group.

Figure 4.

Environmental signals affect development across the plant life cycle. A plant integrates signals including day length, light levels, nutrient availability, temperature, and endogenous physiological cues such as plant hormone signalling. Each of these signals affects the plant differently as the plant transitions from a seed to a seedling, throughout its vegetative growth stages, and during flowering and reproductive growth. Most plants may interpret and respond to many different types of signals over the course of a long life cycle. Although plants can quickly integrate signals and adjust growth to their environment, they may also store environmental signals epigenetically as cues for the next generation.



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Further Reading

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How to Cite close
Palmer, Christine M, Bush, Susan M, and Maloof, Julin N(Jun 2012) Phenotypic and Developmental Plasticity in Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0002092.pub2]