How can we provide the best circumstances for our kids? The new Oikos Early View paper “Adaptive transgenerational plasticity in the perennial Plantago lanceolata” , by Vit Latzel and co-workers, deals with this issue – in plants. Read Vit’s story here:
Imagine that you have to live your whole long life in one spot and that your kids, for whom you cannot even choose the father, will then live very close to you without the possibility of them finding a better environment. How can you best provide for them and make their lives at least slightly easier? This is exactly the challenge that many cross-pollinated long-lived plants must face. Luckily for some mothers, it seems that they can prepare offspring for the environment that they will be facing – giving them an advantage over unprepared competitors. They could do this through the mechanism known as adaptive maternal effects or adaptive transgenerational plasticity. However, rigorous demonstrations of this have been surprisingly rare, probably because appropriate experiments are difficult to conduct and/or the wrong traits have been measured. We did a straightforward experiment on the common perennial Plantago lanceolata (ribwort plantain), testing whether offspring grown in the same level of nutrient availability as their mothers were more successful than offspring grown in a non-maternal environment. Unlike other studies, we considered total carbon storage in roots as the measure of offspring success, because, in contrast to fitness estimates based on single-year fecundity, storage amounts accurately indicate long-term success of polycarpic perennials across several seasons. We found that offspring took an advantage of maternal environmental nutrient levels where they accumulated significantly more carbohydrates than those grown in non-maternal environments. This adaptive transgenerational plasticity was consistent across maternal genotypes and was not affected by climatic fluctuations during offspring development. Our work suggests that adaptive transgenerational plasticity is common in Plantago lanceolata. We also believe that if appropriate estimates of plants success are considered, similar transgenerational adaptive plasticity can likely be found in many other perennial species, and that transgenerational modification of storage dynamics in perennial plants can contribute to their ecological variation.