Friday, January 01, 2016

Plants Evolve in the Face of Climate Change

Climate change can influence everything from pine beetle outbreaks in the Rocky Mountains to rising sea levels in Papua New Guinea. In the face of a rapidly changing earth, plants and animals are forced to quickly deal with new challenges if they hope to survive. According to a recent paper by Jason Fridley, associate professor of biology in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences, recently minted SU Ph.D. Catherine Ravenscroft, and University of Liverpool professor Raj Whitlock some species may be able to handle environmental changes better than others.

Fridley explains that species have a couple options to deal with stress associated with environmental change: they can pick up and move to more favorable areas, or they can stick it out and adapt to the new challenges. This ability to adapt to climate changes was the main focus of the researcher's study

Ribwort plantain and sheep fescue, two plants common in the study site, show signs of being able to respond to induced climate challenges. "There is evidence of genetic differentiation with a long term climate treatment," says Ravenscroft, explaining that genetic difference have built up between climate-treated versus untreated plants in the study site.

What's more, the gene-level changes have happened remarkably fast. Because these grasses are perennial species, meaning they live and reproduce for multiple growing seasons, Fridley estimates there have only been around 10 generations of plants over the 15-year experiment. While that may sound like a lot of generations if you think back to your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent, genetic splits happen on an evolutionary timescale - think in terms of hundreds or thousands of years.

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