Gene flow may help plants adapt to climate change

Jun 28, 2011
These mountain flowers were better able to adapt to warming conditions when genes flowed between similar populations. Credit: Jason Sexton, UC Davis

The traffic of genes among populations may help living things better adapt to climate change, especially when genes flow among groups most affected by warming, according to a UC Davis study of the Sierra Nevada cutleaved monkeyflower. The results were published online June 27 by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings have implications for conservation strategies, said Sharon Strauss, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis and an author of the study.

"In extreme cases where we might consider augmenting available to imperiled populations, it might be best to obtain these genes from populations inhabiting similar kinds of habitats," Strauss said.

Graduate student Jason Sexton, with Strauss and Kevin Rice, professor of plant sciences, studied the monkeyflower (Mimulus laciniatus), an annual plant that lives in mossy areas of the Sierra at elevations of 3,200 feet to 10,000 feet.

Mountain gradients are useful for studying the , Strauss said, because they enable scientists to reproduce the effects of without changing other factors, such as day length. The plants are already living across a range of temperatures, with those at lower elevations exposed to warmer conditions.

Sexton cross-pollinated monkeyflowers from two different locations at the warm, low-elevation edge of the plants' range with monkeyflowers from the middle of the range. All the hybrids were then grown in the field at the low end of the range.

These mountain flowers were better able to adapt to warm conditions when genes flowed between similar populations. Credit: Jason Sexton, UC Davis

As the researchers observed the growing monkeyflowers, they were able to test two contrasting predictions about how should affect plants at the edge of the range. The first prediction was that any mixing of genes from a wider population would help plants adapt to warming conditions. The second was that genes from the center of the range that did not help plants adapt would dilute any adaptive genes, negating their benefit.

"Gene flow" describes the movement of genetic traits within and among populations, as individual animals or plants breed.

To answer these questions, the researchers measured how the mixing of genes from different elevations affected the plants' ability to live at the warm edge of their range, through traits such as time for seedlings to emerge, time to flowering and overall reproductive success.

The study showed that the first prediction was true – gene flow did help the plants adapt to a warmer environment.

"We generally found that there were benefits from gene flow, but gene flow from other warm-edge areas was most beneficial," Strauss said.

Sexton noted that hybrids of monkeyflowers from two warm-edge populations did better than either of their parents, perhaps because the populations had been using different to adapt to warm environments.

"When added together, their performance jumped," he said.

Often considered genetically meager, edge populations should be high-priority conservation targets since they may possess adaptations to their unique environments, Sexton said.

Explore further: Lemurs match scent of a friend to sound of her voice

Provided by University of California - Davis

5 /5 (1 vote)

Related Stories

Discovery May Speed Tree Breeding, Biotechnology

May 31, 2006

Researchers have discovered the genetic controls that cause trees to stop growing and go dormant in the fall, as well as the mechanism that causes them to begin flowering and produce seeds – a major step forward in understanding ...

Life on the edge: To disperse, or become extinct?

Jun 23, 2008

Plants existing at the edges of their natural habitats may enhance survival of the species during global warming, says Queen's prof The hardiest plants and those most likely to survive the climatic shifts bro ...

Are new genes always better?

Jan 28, 2010

Re-vegetation seems like a beneficial strategy for conserving and restoring damaged ecosystems, and using a variety of species can help increase biodiversity in these systems. But what are the risks involved with introducing ...

Plants can adapt genetically to survive harsh environments

Jan 31, 2011

A Purdue University scientist has found genetic evidence of how some plants adapt to live in unfavorable conditions, a finding he believes could one day be used to help food crops survive in new or changing environments.

How plants learned to respond to changing environments

Jul 12, 2007

A team of John Innes centre scientists lead by Professor Nick Harberd have discovered how plants evolved the ability to adapt to changes in climate and environment. Plants adapt their growth, including key steps in their ...

Recommended for you

Lemurs match scent of a friend to sound of her voice

12 hours ago

Humans aren't alone in their ability to match a voice to a face—animals such as dogs, horses, crows and monkeys are able to recognize familiar individuals this way too, a growing body of research shows.

Love-shy panda artificially inseminated

21 hours ago

Britain's only female giant panda, Tian Tian, has been artificially inseminated after failing to mate with her male partner Yang Guang, Edinburgh Zoo said Tuesday.

User comments : 0

More news stories

ESO image: A study in scarlet

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

First direct observations of excitons in motion achieved

A quasiparticle called an exciton—responsible for the transfer of energy within devices such as solar cells, LEDs, and semiconductor circuits—has been understood theoretically for decades. But exciton movement within ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

Last winter's curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, ...