Experimental Climate Changes Lead to Rapid Genetic Changes in Certain Plants

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, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology in Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences, recent Syracuse University Ph.D. Catherine Ravenscroft, and University of Liverpool Professor Raj Whitlock, some species may be able to handle environmental changes better than others. Dr. Fridley explains that species have a couple of options with which 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 (photo) 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 Dr. Ravenscroft, explaining that genetic differences have built up between climate-treated versus untreated plants in the study site. The new research was published in an open-access article in the November 2015 issue of Global Change Biology. The article is titled “Rapid Genetic Divergence in Response to 15 Years of Simulated Climate Change.” 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, Dr. Fridley estimates there have only been around ten generations of plants over the 15-year experiment.
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