HOME :: CHAPTER 23 :: Topic 23.18
Types of Seed Dormancy and the Roles of Environmental Factors
During seed maturation, the embryo enters a quiescent phase in response to desiccation. Seed germination can be defined as the resumption of growth of the embryo of the mature seed; it depends on the same environmental conditions as vegetative growth does. Water and oxygen must be available, the temperature must be suitable, and there must be no inhibitory substances present.
However, in many cases a viable (living) seed will not germinate even though all the necessary environmental conditions for growth are satisfied. This phenomenon is termed seed dormancy. Seed dormancy introduces a temporal delay in the germination process that provides additional time for seed dispersal over greater geographical distances. It also maximizes seedling survival by preventing germination under unfavorable conditions.
Two types of seed dormancy have been recognized, coat-imposed dormancy and embryo dormancy. Coat-imposed dormancy is dormancy imposed on the embryo by the seed coat and other enclosing tissues, such as endosperm, pericarp, or extrafloral organs. The embryos of such seeds will germinate readily in the presence of water and oxygen once the seed coat and other surrounding tissues are either removed or damaged. There are five basic mechanisms of coat-imposed dormancy:
- Prevention of water uptake. Prevention of water uptake by the seed coat is a common cause of seed dormancy in families found in arid and semiarid regions, especially among legumes, such as clover (Trifolium spp.) and alfalfa (Medicago spp.). Waxy cuticles, suberized layers, and lignified sclereids all combine to restrict the penetration of water into the seed.
- Mechanical constraint. The first visible sign of germination is typically the radicle breaking through the seed coat. In some cases, however, the seed coat may be too rigid for the radicle to penetrate. Nuts with hard, lignified shells are examples of dormancy caused by mechanical constraint. Such shells must be broken by biotic or environmental forces for the seed to germinate. Even nonlignified tissues, such as the endosperm of lettuce seeds, can suppress expansion of the embryo. For the seeds to germinate, the endosperm cell walls must be weakened by the production of cell wall–degrading enzymes.
- Interference with gas exchange. Some seed coats are considerably less permeable to oxygen than an equivalent thickness of water is— e.g., less by a factor of about 104 in seeds of cocklebur (Xanthium pennsylvanicum). This lowered permeability to oxygen suggests that the seed coat inhibits germination by limiting the oxygen supply to the embryo. In support of this idea, investigators can break the dormancy of such seeds either by making a small hole in the coat with a pin (without weakening the coat mechanically), or by treating the coat with concentrated oxygen. However, other studies suggest that the oxygen consumption of the embryos from such seeds is considerably less than the amount of oxygen able to penetrate the seed coats under normal aerobic conditions. Thus the role of oxygen impermeability in seed coat dormancy remains unresolved.
- Retention of inhibitors. The seed coat may prevent the escape of inhibitors from the seed. For example, growth inhibitors readily diffuse out of isolated Xanthium embryos, but not from intact seeds.
- Inhibitor production. Seed coats and pericarps may contain relatively high concentrations of growth inhibitors that can suppress germination of the embryo. ABA is a common germination inhibitor present in these maternal tissues. In certain cases where repeated washing (leaching) removes dormancy, the effect is thought to be due to the loss of such inhibitory compounds.
The second type of seed dormancy is embryo dormancy, which refers to a dormancy that is inherent in the embryo and is not due to any influence of the seed coat or other surrounding tissues. In some cases, embryo dormancy can be relieved by amputation of the cotyledons. Species in which the cotyledons exert an inhibitory effect include European hazel (Corylus avellana) and European ash (Fraxinus excelsior). A fascinating demonstration of the cotyledon's ability to inhibit growth is found in species (e.g., peach) in which the isolated dormant embryos germinate but grow extremely slowly to form a dwarf plant. If the cotyledons are removed at an early stage of development, however, the plant abruptly shifts to normal growth.
Embryo dormancy is thought to be due to the presence of inhibitors, especially ABA, as well as the absence of growth promoters, such as GA (gibberellic acid). The loss of embryo dormancy is often associated with a sharp drop in the ratio of ABA to GA.
Seed Dormancy May be Primary or Secondary
Different types of seed dormancy also can be distinguished on the basis of the timing of dormancy onset rather than the cause of the dormancy.
- Seeds that are released from the plant in a dormant state are said to exhibit primary dormancy.
- Seeds that are released from the plant in a nondormant state but which become dormant if the conditions for germination are unfavorable exhibit secondary dormancy. For example, seeds of Avena sativa (oat) can become dormant in the presence of temperatures higher than the maximum for germination, whereas seeds of Phacelia dubia (small-flower scorpionweed) become dormant at temperatures below the minimum for germination. The mechanisms of secondary dormancy are poorly understood.
Environmental Factors Control the Release from Seed Dormancy
Various external factors release the seed from dormancy, and dormant seeds typically respond to more than one condition. Many seeds lose their dormancy when their moisture content is reduced to a certain level by drying. This method of breaking seed dormancy is called afterripening, and is usually performed in a special drying oven. On the other hand, if the seed becomes too dry (5% water content or less), the effectiveness of afterripening is diminished.
Another factor that can release seeds from dormancy is low temperature, or chilling. Many seeds require a period of cold (0 to 10°C) while in a fully hydrated (imbibed) state in order to germinate. In temperate-zone species, this requirement is of obvious survival value, since such seeds will germinate not in the fall, but only in the following spring. Chilling seeds to break their dormancy is a time-honored practice in horticulture and forestry and traditionally has been referred to as stratification. This term is derived from the old agricultural practice of allowing seeds with a chilling requirement to overwinter outdoors in layered mounds of moist soil. Today the seeds are simply stored in a refrigerator.
The third external factor that plays an important role in breaking seed dormancy is light. Many seeds have a light requirement for germination, which may involve only a brief exposure, as in the case of lettuce, an intermittent treatment (e.g., succulents of the genus Kalanchoe), or even a specific photoperiod involving short or long days. As was discussed in textbook Chapter 17, phytochrome is the main sensor for light-regulated seed germination. Interestingly, all light-requiring seeds exhibit seed coat dormancy, and removal of the outer tissues of the seed allows the embryo to germinate in the absence of light. The effect that light has on the embryo is thus to enable the radicle to penetrate the seed coat. This penetration often involves some enzymatic weakening of the enclosing tissues.
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