Desiccation-tolerant (DT) plant germplasm (i.e. seeds, pollen and spores) survive drying to low moisture contents, when cytoplasm solidifies, forming a glass, and chemical reactions are slowed. DT germplasm may survive for long periods in this state, though inter-specific and intra-specific variation occurs and is not currently explained. Such variability has consequences for agriculture, forestry and biodiversity conservation. Longevity was previously considered in the context of morphological features, cellular constituents or habitat characteristics. We suggest, however, that a biophysical perspective, which considers the molecular organization – or structure – within dried cytoplasm, can provide a more integrated understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that control ageing rates, hence the variation of longevity among species and cell types. Based on biochemical composition and physical–chemical properties of dried materials, we explore three types of the interplay between structural conformations of dried cytoplasm and ageing: (1) cells that lack chlorophyll and contain few storage lipids may exhibit long shelf life, with ageing probably occurring through slow autoxidative processes within the glassy matrix as it relaxes; (2) cells with active chlorophyll may die quickly, possibly because they are prone to oxidative stress promoted by the photosynthetic pigments in the absence of metabolic water and (3) cells that lack chloroplasts but contain high storage lipids may die quickly during storage at −20°C, possibly because lipids crystallize and destabilize the glassy matrix. Understanding the complex variation in structural conformation in space and time may help to design strategies that increase longevity in germplasm with generally poor shelf life.
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