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Quint, M., Delker, C., Franklin, K. A., Wigge, P. A., Halliday, K. J. & van Zanten, M. Molecular and genetic control of plant thermomorphogenesis. Nat Plants 2, 15190, (2016) DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2015.190

Temperature is a major factor governing the distribution and seasonal behaviour of plants. Being sessile, plants are highly responsive to small differences in temperature and adjust their growth and development accordingly. The suite of morphological and architectural changes induced by high ambient temperatures, below the heat-stress range, is collectively called thermomorphogenesis. Understanding the molecular genetic circuitries underlying thermomorphogenesis is particularly relevant in the context of climate change, as this knowledge will be key to rational breeding for thermo-tolerant crop varieties. Until recently, the fundamental mechanisms of temperature perception and signalling remained unknown. Our understanding of temperature signalling is now progressing, mainly by exploiting the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. The transcription factor PHYTOCHROME INTERACTING FACTOR 4 (PIF4) has emerged as a critical player in regulating phytohormone levels and their activity. To control thermomorphogenesis, multiple regulatory circuits are in place to modulate PIF4 levels, activity and downstream mechanisms. Thermomorphogenesis is integrally governed by various light signalling pathways, the circadian clock, epigenetic mechanisms and chromatin-level regulation. In this Review, we summarize recent progress in the field and discuss how the emerging knowledge in Arabidopsis may be transferred to relevant crop systems.

The year 2015 is on track to surpass 2014 as the warmest year ever recorded since systematic temperature measurements began more than a century ago1. In fact, the 10 warmest years on record all occurred after 1998. The fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change2 projects an increase of 0.8–4.8 °C in global mean surface temperature within the twenty-first century. Such figures are alarming as it is expected that this will strongly affect plant distribution and survival, and therefore threaten biodiversity3,​4,​5,​6,​7,​8,​9,​10,​11. Some studies already indicate that plant species unable to adjust flowering time in response to temperature are disappearing from certain environments5, and species tend to shift to higher altitudes and latitudes12.

Likewise, crop productivity will probably suffer greatly from global warming, while food production is required to increase significantly to sustain a growing and more demanding world population9,13,​14,​15. A meta-analysis summarizing more than 1,700 studies on the effects of climate change and adaptations on crop yields revealed consensus that in the second half of this century, climate warming is likely to have a negative effect on yields of important staple crops13.

Breeding for crop-level adaptations to cope with high temperatures could potentially reverse this negative trend9,13,​14,​15. In several plant species, mechanisms have evolved to adapt growth and morphology to stimulate mitigation of warmth through enhanced evaporative cooling, increased convection and direct avoidance of heat flux from the Sun16,​17,​18,​19,​20. If understood, the underlying molecular processes of these so-called thermomorphogenesis responses could be attractive breeding targets for improving crops to withstand climate warming.

Although abundant literature is available on how plants tolerate extreme heat stress (reviewed in refs 9,21), we are only beginning to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying thermomorphogenesis in response to moderately increased temperatures. A key breakthrough was the identification of the bHLH (basic helix–loop–helix) transcription factor PHYTOCHROME INTERACTING FACTOR 4 (PIF4) as a central regulator of ambient temperature signalling in Arabidopsis22. Recent findings have implicated important roles for light signalling pathways, the circadian clock23,​24,​25,​26,​27,​28, auxin22,29,​30,​31 and other phytohormones31,​32,​33,​34 in PIF4-mediated temperature-induced growth. Furthermore, epigenetic mechanisms appear at the nexus of induction35 and attenuation36 of growth acclimation in response to high ambient temperatures.

Here we discuss and integrate recent findings on the molecular networks driving thermomorphogenic adaptations. We will highlight missing links and suggest how the knowledge on Arabidopsis could be transferred to crops. In addition to thermomorphogenesis, adaptation to high ambient temperature also involves physiological processes such as photosynthetic acclimation, respiration and changes in carbon balance. For discussions of these topics as well as on phenological changes including premature flowering, we refer the reader to reviews elsewhere20,37,​38,​39.

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