These mutant parent plants apparently have hidden templates containing genetic information from the preceding generation that can be transferred to their offspring, even though the traits aren't evident in the parents, according to Purdue University researchers. This discovery flies in the face of the scientific laws of inheritance first described by Gregor Mendel in the mid-1800s and still taught in classrooms around the world today.
"This means that inheritance can happen more flexibly than we thought in the past," said Robert Pruitt, a Purdue Department of Botany and Plant Pathology molecular geneticist. "While Mendel's laws that we learned in high school still are fundamentally correct, they're not absolute.
"If the inheritance mechanism we found in the research plant Arabidopsis exists in animals, too, it's possible that it will be an avenue for gene therapy to treat or cure diseases in both plants and animals."
The study is published in the March 24 issue of the journal Nature.
Pruitt and collaborator Susan Lolle found that Arabidopsis in which each parent plant had two copies of a mutant gene could produce progeny that didn't show the parents' deformity, but rather were normal like the grandparents. Under Mendelian laws, the offspring should have shown the same mutation.
The first clue that the classic inheritance rules didn't always apply was the discovery of normal flowers on some offspring of mutant plants. In the deformed parents, the flowers were fused into tight balls. But in the grandparents and 10 percent of the grandchildren, the buds become 1-millimeter-long, bright white flowers that fully opened and radiated out from the center of a cluster.