An international team of scientists led by the UK's John Innes Centre and including scientists from Australia, Japan, the US and France has perfected a way of watching genes move within a living plant cell.
Using this technique scientists watched glowing spots, which marked the position of the genes, huddle together in the cold as the genes were switched "off".
The results published in the international journal Genes & Development reveal how genes respond to environmental changes in living organisms where previously plant genes were studied by cutting up plants, killing the cells and fixing them to glass slides.
"What is remarkable about this finding is that we saw genes move within the nucleus in response to changes in the environment, and that this movement seems to be involved in genetic control," Associate Professor Joshua Mylne said.
"The gene we studied, FLOWERING LOCUS C, (FLC) allows plants to respond to changes in the season. When FLC gets turned off (by cold), the plant starts to make flowers instead of leaves. We knew FLC was switched off by cold, but we had no idea that FLC genes would congregate as they get switched off."
"Studying gene motion could improve our understanding of how environmental cues and nurture impact on nature and gene expression," said lead author Dr Stefanie Rosa from the John Innes Centre.
Although the study is of interest to researchers by providing an understanding of how FLC moves as it is turned off, it can be applied to any gene in plants or animals.
"What we want to know now is what is happening at these sites where the genes are congregating," Associate Professor Mylne said. "Are the genes going somewhere special inside the cell? What takes them there and how do the chromosomes move and let the genes congregate? How many other genes congregate like this when they get turned off?
"There are so many new questions this discovery will help us answer."
The study Physical clustering of FLC alleles during Polycomb-mediated epigenetic silencing in vernalization was supported in part by the Australian Research Council.
Associate Professor Mylne initiated the scientific approach almost a decade ago as he embarked on his career in the UK. He is an ARC Future Fellow at The University of Western Australia's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the ARC Centre for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology.
Associate Professor Joshua Mylne (UWAPlant Energy Biology, ARC Centre of Excellence (+61 8) 6488 4415 / (+61 4) 58 490 905
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 00 700 783