Background: How plants respond to dehydration stress has been extensively researched. However, how plants respond to multiple consecutive stresses is virtually unknown. Pre-exposure to various abiotic stresses (including dehydration) may alter plants' subsequent responses by improving resistance to future exposures. These observations have led to the concept of 'stress memory' implying that during subsequent exposures plants provide responses that are different from those during their first encounter with the stress. Genes that provide altered responses in a subsequent stress define the 'memory genes' category; genes responding similarly to each stress form the 'non-memory' category.
Results: Using a genome-wide RNA-Seq approach we determine the transcriptional responses of Arabidopsis plants that have experienced multiple exposures to dehydration stress and compare them with the transcriptional behavior of plants encountering the stress for the first time. The major contribution of this study is the revealed existence of four distinct, previously unknown, transcription memory response patterns of dehydration stress genes in A.thaliana. The biological relevance for each of the four memory types is considered in the context of four overlapping strategies employed by a plant to improve its stress tolerance and/or survival: 1) increased synthesis of protective, damage-repairing, and detoxifying functions; 2) coordinating photosynthesis and growth under repetitive stress; 3) re-adjusting osmotic and ionic equilibrium to maintain homeostasis; and 4) re-adjusting interactions between dehydration and other stress/hormone regulated pathways.
Conclusions: The results reveal the unknown, hitherto, existence of four distinct transcription memory response types in a plant and provide genome-wide characterization of memory and non-memory dehydration stress response genes in A.thaliana. The transcriptional responses during repeated exposures to stress are different from known responses occurring during a single exposure. GO analyses of encoded proteins suggested implications for the cellular/organismal protective, adaptive, and survival functions encoded by the memory genes. The results add a new dimension to our understanding of plants' responses to dehydration stress and to current models for interactions between different signaling systems when adjusting to repeated spells of water deficits.