Cold Acclimation and Freezing Tolerance in Plants


The capacity to survive winter conditions varies greatly in the plant kingdom. Cold acclimation is the process leading to the development of freezing tolerance in plants. It is a complex multigenic process that requires a programmed and integrated genetic capacity to activate the appropriate mechanisms needed to withstand harsh winter conditions. Hardy plants have evolved complex mechanisms to tightly regulate gene expression, including events at the transcriptional and post‐transcriptional levels. Hundreds of cold‐induced genes encoding structural and regulatory proteins have been identified. These proteins have been found in many species, but in most cases, they had been first identified in model species. Most of the studies in the field are still performed with the model dicotyledonous plant Arabidopsis, but Brachypodiumdistachyon is emerging as a model for monocotyledonous species.

Key Concepts:

  • Plants must possess the genetic makeup to develop tolerance to harsh winter conditions.

  • Low temperature induces the expression of many genes in plants.

  • The C‐repeat binding factor (CBF) pathway is still the only identified pathway that regulates gene expression at low temperature.

  • The existence of the CBF components in a species does not ensure the capacity to cold acclimate.

  • Although microRNAs associated with cold response have been discovered, few have been assigned to specific physiological events in the cold acclimation process.

  • Few links between the regulation of cold stress response and chromatin dynamics have been identified in plants thus far.

  • Brachypodium distachyon is a potential model for the study of cold acclimation.

Keywords: Arabidopsis; Brachypodium; chromatin; cold acclimation; epigenetics freezing tolerance; gene regulation; model organisms; vernalisation

Figure 1.

Cellular events associated with the development of FT in plants. Cold is perceived at the plasma membrane by an unknown mechanism that might depend on physical modifications and by the chloroplasts in terms of photosynthetic activity. Various signal transduction cascades are triggered, some involving calcium and phosphorylation events. Gene expression is modified and the corresponding proteins adjust the cell's structure and metabolism. Reproduced from Ouellet with permission of Society for In Vitro Biology, formerly the Tissue Culture Association. © Society for In Vitro Biology.

Figure 2.

Model showing the relationship between dynamic changes in histone acetylation levels and the cold acclimation status of a plant. A dynamic balance between histone acetylation (AC) by histone acetyltransferases (HATs) and deacetylation by histone deacetylases (HDACs) determines the expression of cold‐regulated (COR) genes and thus the cold response status of the plant. Under normal growth conditions, HDACs target nucleosomes (circles) surrounding transcription start sites (TSSs) of CBF genes and other positive effectors, restricting their expression. Concomitantly, negative effectors are targeted by HATs. This results in the inhibition of COR gene expression at 20 °C. On perception of the low‐temperature signal (4 °C), HATs and HDACs target nucleosomes of positive and negative effectors, respectively. In addition, HATs directly acetylate nucleosomes surrounding the TSSs of COR genes. Additional evidence suggests that the GCN5 HAT is capable of clearing nucleosomes at the TSSs of COR genes. GCN5 is recruited by the CBF1 transcription factor through the transcriptional adaptor ADA2 to stimulate the expression of target COR genes. The overall effect is an induction of COR gene expression at LT, leading to increased FT.



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Ouellet, Francois, and Charron, Jean‐Benoit(Dec 2013) Cold Acclimation and Freezing Tolerance in Plants. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020093.pub2]