Cold tolerance in plants is an ecologically important trait that has been under intensive study for basic and applied reasons. Determining the fitness benefits and costs of cold tolerance has previously been difficult because cold tolerance is normally an induced trait that is not expressed in warm environments. The recent creation of transgenic plants constitutively expressing cold tolerance genes enables the investigation of the fitness consequences of cold tolerance in multiple temperature environments. We studied three genes from the CBF (C-repeat/dehydration responsive element binding factor) cold tolerance pathway, CBF1, 2 and 3, in Arabidopsis thaliana to test for benefits and costs of constitutive cold tolerance. We used multiple insertion lines for each transgene and grew the lines in cold and control conditions. Costs of cold tolerance, as determined by fruit number, varied by individual transgene. CBF2 and 3 overexpressers showed costs of cold tolerance, and no fitness benefits, in both environments. CBF1 overexpressing plants showed no fitness cost of cold tolerance in the control environment and showed a marginal fitness benefit in the cold environment. These results suggest that constitutive expression of traits that are normally induced in response to environmental stress will not always lead to costs in the absence of that stress, and that the ecological risks of CBF transgene escape should be assessed prior to their use in commercial agriculture.
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