Epigenetics for Crop Improvement
in Times of Global Change

Abstract: Epigenetics has emerged as an important research field for crop improvement under the on-going climatic changes. Heritable epigenetic changes can arise independently of DNA sequence alterations and have been associated with altered gene expression and transmitted phenotypic variation. By modulating plant development and physiological responses to environmental conditions, epigenetic diversity—naturally, genetically, chemically, or environmentally induced—can help optimise crop traits in an era challenged by global climate change. Beyond DNA sequence variation, the epigenetic modifications may contribute to breeding by providing useful markers and allowing the use of epigenome diversity to predict plant performance and increase final crop production. Given the difficulties in transferring the knowledge of the epigenetic mechanisms from model plants to crops, various strategies have emerged. Among those strategies are modelling frameworks dedicated to predicting epigenetically controlled-adaptive traits, the use of epigenetics for in vitro regeneration to accelerate crop breeding, and changes of specific epigenetic marks that modulate gene expression of traits of interest. The key challenge that agriculture faces in the 21st century is to increase crop production by speeding up the breeding of resilient crop species. Therefore, epigenetics provides fundamental molecular information with potential direct applications in crop enhancement, tolerance, and adaptation within the context of climate change.

Keywords: breeding; climate change; DNA methylation; epigenomics; memory; plant epigenetics; prediction models; priming

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