Albinism in Plants: Characteristics & Causes

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  • 0:03 Albinism in Plants
  • 0:56 Characteristics of Albinism
  • 3:15 Causes of Albinism
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Taormina Lepore

Taormina has taught advanced high school biology, is a science museum educator, and has a Master's degree in museum paleontology.

Albinism, or a lack of pigment, causes characteristic paleness or whiteness in many organisms. In this lesson, we'll discuss albinism in plants, including a few major characteristics and causes.

Albinism in Plants

Pale skin. White fur. Red eyes. If you've ever seen a mouse that fit these characteristics, you most likely immediately recognized it as albino. But did you know that albinism, the lack of pigment that causes white or pale pigmentation, can occur in plants, as well?

Since plants make their own food from the green pigments in their leaves called chlorophyll, being an albino plant is bad news. Without green pigmentation, plants don't have much chlorophyll. Without chlorophyll, most albino plants can't undergo the process of photosynthesis and will wither away and die.

But there are a few cases where albinism can produce strange, beautiful, and even long-living plants. Let's take a look at some of the characteristics of albinism in plants and discuss a few of the causes behind albino plants.

Characteristics of Albinism

Sometimes plants have a genetic defect that causes them to sprout without producing chlorophyll, or to produce only a few shoots that have no chlorophyll. When plants have reduced chlorophyll but aren't fully albino, this is known as chlorosis. Sometimes chlorosis is caused by poor plant nutrition in the surrounding soils; in contrast, true albinism is a genetic condition with little to no chlorophyll produced.

Other plants simply have white flowers or an overall white color but still produce green leaves. These kinds of plants are called albiflora, which means 'white flower.' Still other plants produce intensely pale flowers or leaves but are not true albinos.

True albino plants almost completely lack chlorophyll pigmentation and they share one thing with albiflora: both albinos and albiflora are created by genetically recessive traits. The offspring of some albiflora and some albino plants can still produce pigmented leaves or flowers, as long as the recessive paleness is masked by a dominant, colorful, or chlorophyll pigmented trait.

Two famous examples of albinism in plants are the albino redwood and the albino Adder's mouth orchid. Both of these remarkable plants survive and even thrive without chlorophyll. The albino redwood has striking white needles and grows up as an offshoot of its parent tree, expressing the recessive albino trait rather than the chlorophyll trait. In order to survive, the albino redwood tree must graft its roots to the healthy parent's roots and act as a parasite, drawing nutrients from the parental roots. These redwood trees are extremely rare and have importance in the native cultures that live near the redwoods of the northwestern United States.

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