Environmental perception and epigenetic memory: mechanistic insight through FLC.

Chromatin plays a central role in orchestrating gene regulation at the transcriptional level. However, our understanding of how chromatin states are altered in response to environmental and developmental cues, and then maintained epigenetically over many cell divisions, remains poor. The floral repressor gene FLOWERING LOCUS C (FLC) in Arabidopsis thaliana is a useful system to address these questions. FLC is transcriptionally repressed during exposure to cold temperatures, allowing studies of how environmental conditions alter expression states at the chromatin level. FLC repression is also epigenetically maintained during subsequent development in warm conditions, so that exposure to cold may be remembered. This memory depends on molecular complexes that are highly conserved among eukaryotes, making FLC not only interesting as a paradigm for understanding biological decision-making in plants, but also an important system for elucidating chromatin-based gene regulation more generally. In this review, we summarize our understanding of how cold temperature induces a switch in the FLC chromatin state, and how this state is epigenetically remembered. We also discuss how the epigenetic state of FLC is reprogrammed in the seed to ensure a requirement for cold exposure in the next generation.