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    While most ferns avoid freezing as they have a tropical distribution or shed their fronds, wintergreen species in temperate and boreoalpine ecosystems have to deal with sub-zero temperatures. Increasing evidence has revealed overlapping mechanisms of desiccation and freezing tolerance in angiosperms, but the physiological mechanisms behind freezing tolerance in ferns are far from clear. We evaluated photochemical and hydraulic parameters in five wintergreen fern species differing in their ability to tolerate desiccation. We assessed frond freezing tolerance, ice nucleation temperature and propagation pattern, and xylem anatomical traits. Dynamics of photochemical performance and xanthophyll cycle were evaluated during freeze-thaw events under controlled conditions and, in selected species, in the field. Only desiccation-tolerant species, which possessed a greater fraction of narrow tracheids (<18 μm) than sensitive species, tolerated freezing. Frond freezing occurred in the field at -3.4 ± 0.9 °C (SD) irrespective of freezing tolerance, freezable water content, or tracheid properties. Even in complete darkness, maximal photochemical efficiency of photosystem II was down-regulated concomitantly with zeaxanthin accumulation in response to freezing. This was reversible upon re-warming only in tolerant species. Our results suggest that adaptation for freezing tolerance is associated with desiccation tolerance through complementary xylem properties (which may prevent risk of irreversible cavitation) and effective photoprotection mechanisms. The latter includes de-epoxidation of xanthophylls in darkness, a process evidenced for the first time directly in the field. © The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Experimental Biology. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email:


    Beatriz Fernández-Marín, Miren Irati Arzac, Marina López-Pozo, José Manuel Laza, Thomas Roach, Matthias Stegner, Gilbert Neuner, José I García-Plazaola. Frozen in the dark: interplay of night-time activity of xanthophyll cycle, xylem attributes, and desiccation tolerance in fern resistance to winter. Journal of experimental botany. 2021 Apr 02;72(8):3168-3184

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    PMID: 33617637

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