How Trees Adapt to Climate Stress

Trees are among the longest-living plant species. Being sessile, adaptation strategies to changing environmental conditions are among their most important requirements for survival. In a study recently published in the journal The Plant Cell, a team of scientists led by Jörg-Peter Schnitzler, Research Unit Environmental Simulation (EUS), and Klaus F. X. Mayer, Research Unit Plant Genome and Systems Biology (PGSB) at Helmholtz Zentrum München, now investigated how these adaptation strategies function at the molecular level.

Grey poplar during exposition © HMGU

Trees are extremely effective in adapting to combined drought and heat periods, which occur with increasing frequency in Central Europe – the summer of 2018 was a prime example. After exposure to such stress conditions and a short recovery phase, they not only much better tolerate subsequent similar stress situations but even increase the photosynthesis rate compared with non-stressed plants. 

"We assume that there is a molecular memory for such extreme situations. This enables the plant to respond with a high flexibility to environmental challenges," said Schnitzler. The aim of the researchers’ study, which was carried out with poplar trees in the environmental simulation chambers of the Helmholtz Zentrum München, was to understand this adaptation at a molecular level, taking into account different tree tissues, from roots to young leaves. The scientists also wanted to elucidate whether the molecular memory of plants is influenced by the intensity of the stress load and by repeated drought-heat periods.

The poplar trees, showed great differences in gene activity after recovery from periodic and chronic stress conditions, although immediate stress responses had been similar. "Regarding five major tree tissues, it turned out that there were common stress response and memory profiles, yet with completely different gene loci involved," said Mayer.

Only a few genes seemed to play a role in all tissues. Among these were two transcription factor genes that likely lead to an activation of photosynthesis. "The data suggest that the transcription factors regulate physiological processes in the poplar trees during the stress phase, after recovery from stress and at stress recurrence," added Elisabeth Georgii, first author of the study, Institute of Biochemical Plant Pathology (BIOP).

In the future, the team will continue to focus on the regulation of 'memory genes' in different tissue types. "We now want to find out whether genes with these characteristics can also be found in cereal plants," said Schnitzler. "In the light of climate change, challenging environmental conditions and the need for sustainable agriculture, unlocking the natural genetic reservoir can be an important component for future breeding."

Further information

Original publication:
E.Georgii et al. (2019): The systems architecture of molecular memory in poplar after abiotic stress, Plant Cell, DOI:

As German Research Center for Environmental Health, Helmholtz Zentrum München pursues the goal of developing personalized medical approaches for the prevention and therapy of major common diseases such as diabetes mellitus, allergies and lung diseases. To achieve this, it investigates the interaction of genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle. The Helmholtz Zentrum München has about 2,300 staff members and is headquartered in Neuherberg in the north of Munich. Helmholtz Zentrum München is a member of the Helmholtz Association, a community of 19 scientific-technical and medical-biological research centers with a total of about 37,000 staff members. 

The work of the Research Unit Environmental Simulation (EUS) focuses on the impact of environmental factors on biosphere–atmosphere exchange of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Particularly we are interested in understanding biosynthesis and molecular regulation of the emission of volatile terpenes (i.e. isoprene and monoterpenes) from plants and explore their biological and ecosystemic functions

The Research Unit Plant Genome and Systems Biology (PGSB) focuses on the analysis of plant genomes, using bioinformatic techniques. To store and manage the data, we developed a database, PlantsDB, that aims to provide a data and information resource for individual plant species. In addition PlantsDB provides a platform for integrative and comparative plant genome research. 

The focal point of the research work carried out by the  Institute of Biochemical Plant Pathology is the examination of molecular mechanisms that plants use to adapt to their environment. These include genetic and biochemical processes which control the growth, physiological state and defence mechanisms of the plants. The aim of the research is to better understand the fundamental principles and mechanisms of the interaction between plants and their environment and to develop sustainable strategies for the cultivation and use of plants to protect natural resources.

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