Wei Xue: Born with a silver spoon? How light condition experienced by parent plants influences the response of offspring to light

In this new post, Wei Xue from Taizhou University, China, presents his latest work ‘Light condition experienced by parent plants influences the response of offspring to light via both parental effects and soil legacy effects’. He discusses the importance of parental effects, soil legacy effects, and current light availability in driving clonal plant population growth.

About the paper

It is a common notion in humans, animals, and plants that environmental conditions experienced by parent(s) can influence their offspring. In plants, this effect can be seen via at least two processes. First, environment-induced changes in the characteristics of parent plants can be transmitted to—and have influences on—their offspring (i.e., via parental effects). Second, environment-induced changes in properties of the soil where the parent plant grows can further influence their offspring that grow later in the same soil (i.e. via soil legacies). The importance of both parental effects and soil legacy effects in plant growth has been well documented, but this has typically been tested independently—we lack the knowledge on how these effects may act simultaneously to regulate offspring performance.

We filled this knowledge gap by conducting a two-phase experiment. In the first phase, we grew parent plants of common pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) under ambient and shaded light conditions. The parent plants were treated with a DNA demethylation agent (5-azacytidine) to block parental effect, or with water to allow parental effect. After three months, we collected the soils and offspring; hence we had four types of soil and four types of offspring that had been generated via the ambient and shaded parent plants, either treated with 5-azacytidine or water. In the second experiment, we grew the four types of offspring separately in each of the four different soils, and they were placed under either ambient or shaded light conditions.

The second phase experiment in the greenhouse (credit: Wei Xue).

The key finding of our study is that offspring produced by a parent exposed to ambient light conditions grew larger than offspring produced by a parent exposed to shaded light conditions— thus indicating a “silver spoon” effect. However, the effect of parental light conditions also varied depending on the soil that had been altered by the parent, the DNA demethylation status of the parent, and the offspring light condition. Moreover, offspring growth was associated with fungal composition and total phosphorus in the soil that had been altered by the parent. Our results show, for the first time, that light condition experienced by parents can influence offspring responses to light through both parental effects and soil legacies. The parental effects were mediated by changes in DNA methylation and the soil legacy effects were due to plant-mediated changes via a combination of biotic and abiotic soil properties.

About the research

Our study combines epigenetics and classic plant-soil feedbacks, and is of broad interest to botanists and ecologists. Our results highlight the importance of parental effects, soil legacy effects, and current light availability in driving clonal plant population growth. This may have important implications for the ecological and evolutionary trajectories of  clonal plant populations. The remaining questions are how the parental effects are transmitted to clonal offspring of H. vulgaris, how this works for other species, and how soil legacies influence these transmission processes.

Moreover, plants in nature are often challenged by multiple global change factors. It would be interesting to know how global changes experienced by parent plants may influence the response of their offspring to further global changes, and the role that parental effects and soil legacy effects play in mediating these changes.

About The Author

Wei Xue in a subtropical forest in Jiangxi Province, China (credit: Xue-Dong Li)

I was born and grew up in a small village where I could find many birds, insects, and plants. In 2007, I left my hometown and started to study at Beijing Forestry University, China—majoring in Management of Wildlife and Nature Reserves. I took the major simply because I thought I would have many chances to see animals and plants that I had never seen before. After four years, I continued my Master’s program by studying the effects of soil heterogeneity on competitive interactions in wetland clonal plants—supervised by Prof. Ming-Xiang Zhang and Prof. Fei-Hai Yu. To be honest, at the start of  my Master’s degree, I did not even know what clonal plants were. However, what impressed me a lot was that they can “forage” in heterogeneous environments! In 2014, I moved to Wageningen University, the Netherlands,  to complete my Ph.D project, promoted by Prof. Frank Berendse and Prof. T. Martijn Bezemer. This project took me to another new field—plant-soil feedbacks! I finished my wonderful four-year Ph.D project in 2018.

Since I obtained my Ph.D, I have been working as a researcher at the Institute of Wetland Ecology & Clone Ecology, Taizhou University, China, with Prof. Fei-Hai Yu. My current research focuses on: (1) how plants under global changes influence the soil they grow in, and how these changes, via plant-soil feedbacks, influence subsequent plant

responses to global changes; (2) How environmental heterogeneity influences plant coexistence and diversity under global changes; (3) How clonal plants influence plant coexistence and diversity under global changes. I have tried to answer these questions in several experiments in greenhouses, common gardens, and fields. I am happy to set up a discussion if the reader is interested in our research. I can be reached via Email: x_wei1988@163.com, or ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Wei-Xue-7

Enjoyed the blogpost? Read the research here!

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