Flowering plants initially diversified during the Mesozoic era at least 140 million years ago in regions of the world where temperate seasonal environments were not encountered. Since then several cooling events resulted in the contraction of warm and wet environments and the establishment of novel temperate zones in both hemispheres. In response, less than half of modern angiosperm families have members that evolved specific adaptations to cold seasonal climates, including cold acclimation, freezing tolerance, endodormancy, and vernalization responsiveness. Despite compelling evidence for multiple independent origins, the level of genetic constraint on the evolution of adaptations to seasonal cold is not well understood. However, the recent increase in molecular genetic studies examining the response of model and crop species to seasonal cold offers new insight into the evolutionary lability of these traits. This insight has major implications for our understanding of complex trait evolution, and the potential role of local adaptation in response to past and future climate change. In this review, we discuss the biochemical, morphological, and developmental basis of adaptations to seasonal cold, and synthesize recent literature on the genetic basis of these traits in a phylogenomic context. We find evidence for multiple genetic links between distinct physiological responses to cold, possibly reinforcing the coordinated expression of these traits. Furthermore, repeated recruitment of the same or similar ancestral pathways suggests that land plants might be somewhat pre-adapted to dealing with temperature stress, perhaps making inducible cold traits relatively easy to evolve.
Keywords: cold acclimation; endodormancy; freezing tolerance; plant adaptation; seasonality; vernalization responsiveness.