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Cold hardening

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Cold hardening is the Physiologycal and biochemical process by which an organism prepares for cold weather.


Plants in temperate and polar regions adapt to winter and sub zero temperatures by relocating nutrients from leaves and shoots to storage organs. Freezing temperatures induce dehydrative stress on plants, as water absorption in the root and water transport in the plant decreases. Water in and between cells in the plant freezes and expands, causing tissue damage. Cold hardening is a process in which a plant undergoes physiological changes to avoid, or mitigate cellular injuries caused by sub-zero temperatures. Non-acclimatized individuals can survive -5 °C, while a acclimatized individual in the same species can survive -30°. Plants that originated in the tropics, like tomato or maize, don’t go through cold hardening and are unable to survive freezing temperatures. The plant starts the adaptation by exposure to cold yet still not freezing temperatures. The process can be divided into three steps. First the plant perceives low temperature, then converts the signal to activate or repress expression of appropriate genes. Finally, it uses these genes to combat the stress, caused by sub-zero temperatures, affecting its living cells. Many of the genes and responses to low temperature stress are shared with other abiotic stresses, like drought or salinity.

When temperature drops, the membrane fluidity, RNA and DNA stability, and enzyme activity change. These, in turn, affect transcription, translation, intermediate metabolism, and photosynthesis, leading to an energy imbalance. This energy imbalance is thought to be one of the ways the plant detects low temperature. Experiments on arabidopsis show that the plant detects the change in temperature, rather than the absolute temperature. The rate of temperature drop is directly connected to the magnitude of calcium influx, from the space between cells, into the cell. Calcium channels in the cell membrane detect the temperature drop, and promotes expression of low temperature responsible genes in alfalfa and arabidopsis. The response to the change in calcium elevation depends on the cell type and stress history. Shoot tissue will respond more than a root cells, and a cell that already is adaptedto cold stress will respond more than one that has not been through cold hardening before. Light doesn’t control the onset of cold hardening directly, but shortening of daylight is associated with fall, and starts production of reactive oxygen species and excitation of photosystem 2, which influences low-temp signal transduction mechanisms. Plants with compromised perception of day length have compromised cold acclimation.

Cold increases cell membrane permeability and makes the cell shrink, as water is drawn out when ice is formed in the extracellular matrix between cells. To retain the surface area of the cell membrane so it will be able to regain its former volume when temperature rises again, the plant forms more and stronger Hechtian strands. These are tubelike structures that connect the protoplast with the cell wall. When the intracellular water freezes, the cell will expand, and without cold hardening the cell would rupture. To protect the cell membrane from expansion induced damage, the plant cell changes the proportions of almost all lipids in the cell membrane, and increases the amount of total soluble protein and other cryoprotecting molecules, like sugar and proline.

Chilling injury occurs at 0–10 degrees Celsius, as a result of membrane damage, metabolic changes, and toxic buildup. Symptoms include wilting, water soaking, necrosis, chlorosis, ion leakage, and decreased growth. Freezing injury may occur at temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius. Symptoms of extracellular freezing include structural damage, dehydration, and necrosis. If intracellular freezing occurs, it will lead to death. Freezing injury is a result of lost permeability, plasmolysis, and post-thaw cell bursting.

When spring comes, or during a mild spell in winter, plants de-harden, and if the temperature is warm for long enough – their growth resumes.


Cold hardening has also been observed in insects such as the elm leaf beetle and fruit fly. The insects use rapid hardening to protect against cold shock.