Genetic Mechanisms Enhancing Plant Biodiversity

  • Evangelia SinapidouEmail author
  • Ioannis S. Tokatlidis
Part of the Sustainable Agriculture Reviews book series (SARV, volume 7)


Biodiversity is essential for an evolving ecosystem and as a resource for further development of natural products by breeding. At present agriculture is under pressure by the demand for increased crop production and the public anticipation for sustainable cultivation practices. Undeniably, the prerequisite for adaptation of an organism to changing environmental conditions is genetic variability. The answer to the concern that the persistent accumulation of desirable alleles in a few cultivars could erode genetic variability and ultimately impede further improvement, comes from the fields of genetic and epigenetic studies that have revealed a range of mechanisms which result in remarkable variability even in narrow gene pools.

We review small and large scale mutations and transposable element activity that create genetic variability, as well as epigenetic mechanisms that could give rise to variation not necessarily depending on DNA sequence alterations. Major points include the naturally occurring mutation rate that might explain the difficulty in controlling weeds with single-target herbicides, in addition to the advances in plant breeding through intentional mutation. Moreover, allele expression biases are presented in polyploid species, as well as the implication of transposable element activity in intra-species variation.

Another major point refers to the reduced expression levels of a locus that correlates with DNA methylation, a process that has further been associated with phenomena such as paramutation, parental imprinting, and heterosis. Intriguingly, transposable element activity in cases like during environmental stress, has been implied to be controlled by DNA methylation and demethylation systems causing genome restructure, together with the fact that methylated nucleotides are themselves hot-spots for mutations.

Other major points involve histones, proteins responsible for DNA packaging and organization, that are involved in gene activation and silencing, for example during stress conditions or at different developmental stages. Lastly, some RNA molecules are implicated both in endogenous gene regulation and the control of invading genetic entities, which is particularly important when using biotechnological methods for the development of novel crops through the introduction of transgenes. Overall, epigenetic changes seem to happen more frequently and be reversible, whereas spontaneous DNA mutations are often random and more stable.

In conclusion, plant biodiversity can serve as a resource for sustainable agriculture. It is important for plant breeders to take advantage of the range of modern tools and knowledge of plant genomes, so that breeding is less a ‘hit and miss’ process, but a more precise strategy, where successful selection for crop improvement is increasingly supported by understanding the genetic variation underlying the phenotype.


DNA methylation Epigenetic mechanisms Genetic variation Histone modifications Mutation Plant breeding RNA molecules Sustainable agriculture Transposable elements 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Agricultural DevelopmentDemocritus University of ThraceOrestiadaGreece

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