During the various life stages of a plant, some genes must be turned on, and others shut off, in order to ensure each plant cell is doing what it needs to be doing at the right time. “Part of identity is what you aren’t,” said Doris Wagner, senior author on the study.
“Especially for plants, because they are so changeable and susceptible to environmental conditions. The part of the genome that is not needed, or that might be providing exactly the wrong information, needs to be shut off reliably in each condition. This information is then passed on to daughter cells.”
According to the authors, manipulating these short DNA fragments could enhance activation of certain traits, such as fruiting or seed production. “With these short sequences,” Wagner added, “we could try to manipulate them using gene-editing techniques to alter gene expression without adding any foreign genetic material to the plant and epigenetically* alter expression of traits.”
*Epigenetics means that a ‘parent’s’ (in all forms of living things) experiences, not just their DNA, in the form of epigenetic tags, can be passed down to future generations.