A new groundbreaking study has found that a "hidden" code linked to the DNA of plants allows them to develop and pass down new biological traits far more rapidly than previously thought.
The study by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies provides the first evidence that an organism's "epigenetic" code - an extra layer of biochemical instructions in DNA - can evolve more quickly than the genetic code and can strongly influence biological traits.
While the study was limited to a single plant species called Arabidopsis thaliana, the equivalent of the laboratory rat of the plant world, the findings hint that the traits of other organisms, including humans, might also be dramatically influenced by biological mechanisms that scientists are just beginning to understand.
"Our study shows that it's not all in the genes," said Joseph Ecker, a professor in Salk's Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory, who led the research team.
"We found that these plants have an epigenetic code that's more flexible and influential than we imagined.
"There is clearly a component of heritability that we don't fully understand. It's possible that we humans have a similarly active epigenetic mechanism that controls our biological characteristics and gets passed down to our children," he explained.
The study was published in the journal Science.