Plant Responses to Freezing


During the course of evolution, plants have developed complex mechanisms to survive under a freezing condition. The ability of temperate plants to endure freezing differs depending on the season and depending on the region they inhabit in relation to the environmental temperatures. The prerequisite for survival of plants under a freezing condition is avoidance of lethal intracellular freezing in living cells. Depending on the function in living cells, such avoidance mechanisms change due to the difference in responses of cell walls as well as the plasma membrane to extracellular ice. Owing to these differences, living plant cells adapt to freezing by extracellular freezing and deep supercooling and also by extraorgan freezing, in which cells adapt by an intermediate form between extracellular freezing and deep supercooling.

Key Concepts

  • The first step of freezing resistance is the blocking of cell walls and plasma membranes against inoculation of extracellular ice.
  • Living cells in most temperate plant tissues respond to freezing by extracellular freezing, in which cell walls inhibit ice penetration but allow dehydration.
  • Interbilayer events, which are caused by the close approach of membranes by mechanical stress of freezing, are the main cause of injury by extracellular freezing.
  • Many cold acclimation‐induced changes are related to inhibition of or reduction in the incidence of interbilayer events.
  • Adaptation by deep supercooling occurs in cells with rigid and thick walls, which do not allow penetration of ice or dehydration.
  • Supercooling capacity is changed by intracellular contents, especially by the interaction of antiice nucleation polyphenols with ice nucleators.
  • Dormant buds of many woody plants respond to freezing by extraorgan freezing, in which formation of extracellular ice is excluded in tissues with freezing‐susceptible cells.

Keywords: intracellular freezing; extracellular freezing; cold acclimation and deacclimation; deep supercooling; supercooling‐promoting (antiice nucleation) substances; extraorgan freezing

Figure 1. (a–c) Diverse responses of plant cells to freezing by observation with Cryo‐SEM. (a1–2) Freezing response of cortical parenchyma cells of a mulberry tree harvested in autumn exhibiting adaptation by extracellular freezing. As compared with control cells before freezing (a1), equilibrium freezing to −10 °C caused production of extracellular ice (*) among shrunken cells by dehydration (a2). (b1–3) Freezing response of xylem parenchyma cells of a birch tree harvested in summer exhibiting adaptation by deep supercooling. As compared with control cells before freezing (b1), cells supercooled at −15 °C showed the same appearance as that of control cells (b2). Intracellular freezing occurs by cooling to −20 °C. Arrows indicate some intracellular ice (b3). Reproduced with permission from Kasuga et al. © Springer. (c1–2). Freezing response of dormant buds in larch harvested in winter exhibiting adaptation by extraorgan freezing. By slow freezing to −30 °C, large masses of extracellular ice (*) were produced in basal areas of scales and subtending areas of the shoot primordium as observed by a light microscope (c1). In the shoot primordium under freezing at −30 °C, no extracellular ice was produced and packed primordial cells were slightly shrunken showing adaptation by deep supercooling with incomplete dehydration (c2). Reproduced from Endoh et al. © Elsevier.


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Further Reading

Chen THH, Burke MJ and Gusta LV (1995) Freezing tolerance in plants: an overview. In: Ree RE Jr, Warren GJ and Gusta LV (eds) Biological Ice Nucleation and Its Application, pp. 115–135. St Paul, MN: APS Press.

Hincha DK and Zutter E (2014) Plant Cold Acclimation: Methods and Protocoles. New York: Humana Press.

Wisniewski M (1995) Deep supercooling and the role of cell wall structure. In: Lee RL Jr, Warren GJ and Gusta LV (eds) Biological Ice Nucleation and Its Application, pp. 163–182. APS Press: St Paul, MN.

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Fujikawa, Seizo(Nov 2016) Plant Responses to Freezing. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023719]