Understanding plant cold hardiness: an opinion


e-mail: michael.wisniewski@ars.usda.gov


How plants adapt to freezing temperatures and acclimate to survive the formation of ice within their tissues has been a subject of study for botanists and plant scientists since the latter part of the 19th century. In recent years, there has been an explosion of information on this topic and molecular biology has provided new and exciting opportunities to better understand the genes involved in cold adaptation, freezing response and environmental stress in general. Despite an exponential increase in our understanding of freezing tolerance, understanding cold hardiness in a manner that allows one to actually improve this trait in economically important crops has proved to be an elusive goal. This is partly because of the growing recognition of the complexity of cold adaptation. The ability of plants to adapt to and survive freezing temperatures has many facets, which are often species specific, and are the result of the response to many environmental cues, rather than just low temperature. This is perhaps underappreciated in the design of many controlled environment experiments resulting in data that reflects the response to the experimental conditions but may not reflect actual mechanisms of cold hardiness in the field. The information and opinions presented in this report are an attempt to illustrate the many facets of cold hardiness, emphasize the importance of context in conducting cold hardiness research, and pose, in our view, a few of the critical questions that still need to be addressed.