To survive climate change, plants must adapt – and fast

Researchers read into the biological history of plants to reveal how plants will survive when birds and bees fly away. 

By Mônica Favre, Ph.D, Science Writer

How can plants adapt to climate change? Unlike animals that can actively fly, swim or walk away to new locations when climate becomes too hostile, plants must adapt their biological functions – or perish. New, collaborative research sheds some light on how plant evolutionary history will help us protect them.

“Climate changes at a given region create stressors such as increased heat, changed salt concentrations, droughts, or unavailability of pollinators, such as bees and birds” says Associate Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Chelsea Specht. “These changes demand many local species, which have for a long time evolved to survive in different conditions, to rapidly adapt or else, they may disappear.”

Driven to solve this problem, Specht’s lab at Berkeley studies plant form and function with the ultimate goal of understanding the genetic causes of plant evolution. But because more data and information is needed to find a solution, and climate change is already a reality, Specht launched a Frontiers Research Topic on the subject in hopes that researchers from other labs would share their knowledge.

“We are identifying the drive for the evolution of the species, pushing the boundaries of our understanding of plant evolution and survival, towards better indicators for preservation of diversity and a balanced ecosystem,” says Specht.

Specht says the challenge of studying in the wild is that researchers cannot control the factors to establish an effect. “We study evolutionary development in the field, where we can look into the history of how, biologically, the plant got there. This gives us ways to predict their capacity to survive climate changes,” she explains.

But understanding how plants got there, and then quickly adapted to overcome to new stressors such as temperature change or drought, is no simple matter. ” We have to collect an enormous amount of data to be able to identify true correlations, so I wanted to enable the field as whole to benefit,” she says.

To her and other researchers in the field, it seemed clear that only a very large effort can inform of the best molecular pathways underlying successful adaptations. “To better predict how the environment will affect plant survival and reproduction, we need to merge microbiology and evolution with ecology.”

By bringing scientists from different specialties in the realm of evolution together, she connected disciplines that wouldn’t normally merge. “The benefits are clear and durable,” says Specht, seeing that the new generation of developmental geneticists can build on our current understanding of the genetic bases of traits that are important for plant growth and reproduction. ”We can now use this information to better predict plant response to environmental change.”

Over 50 scientists from around the world have contributed their findings on the topic : “Understanding plant adaptation and diversification: evo-devo and beyond,” published in Frontiers in Plant Science.

7 Comments on To survive climate change, plants must adapt – and fast

  1. Asghar Iran-Nejad // October 4, 2016 at 11:35 am // Reply

    This issue may be addressed in a most coherent fashion through the cross-disciplinary lens of multiple-source biofunctional self-regulation Iran-Nejad, A., McKeachie, W. J., & Berliner, D. C. (1990). The multisource nature of learning: An introduction. Review of Educational Research, 60, 509-515.. According to this theory, adaptation is a form of self-regulatory learning. In this regard, plants share one fundamental self-regularity capacity with animals and differ in yet another. What they share is dynamic biofunctional self-regulation. In other words, plants like animals have evolved in the multiple-source natural world. This means that, like animals, they are biofunctional systems of multiple biofunctional subsystem that possess dynamic self-regulatory capacity to work together. However, what plants lack is active or executive self-regulation. So, the question is to what extent plants are capable of learning or adapting (Iran-Nejad, A., & Chissom, B. S. (1992). Contributions of active and dynamic self-regulation to learning. Innovative Higher Education, 17, 125-136. doi:10.1007/BF00917134). etc. etc…..

  2. Timothy J Hansen // October 5, 2016 at 2:48 am // Reply

    Please do not underestimate the adaptability of plants and animals. Over the course of the past ten million years years, this planet must have seen numerous upward and downward adjustments in climate that exceed even the most dire predictions of the modelers and the IPCC. Said changes came as quickly as they went. Nor is it true that plants do not migrate. many plants are found to have taken over an area in a seemingly opportunistic manner. Kudzu comes to mind, and a rudimentary search will find any number of plants that grow towards something that is advantageous to it’s survival species.
    It is not a dynamic self regulatory capacity to be sure, But somehow plants have he capability to get from point A to point B in a response to a number of outside stimuli, especially climate change.

    Tim H.

  3. Asghar Iran-Nejad // October 5, 2016 at 8:27 am // Reply

    I agree! It is all too easy to fall into the trap of underestimation and I see now that plants migrate all to well! Thank you. So what is next in our cross-disciplinary journey. We may agree with the relatively obvious that both plants and animals are biofunctional systems of biofunctional subsystems (BSOBS) to see where our cross-disciplinary BSOBS journey can take us next. Plants have their own ingenious self-regulatory subsystems to which they can delegate contribution, e.g., they lay seeds in vast and diverse numbers. Even more ingeniously, to finish the job of their migration, they delegate contribution to other forces of nature such as the wind, insects, birds, and even people. We can see how see that plants have powerful dynamic self-regulatory systems to which they can spontaneously delegate contribution (see Iran-Nejad, A., & Chissom, B. S. (1992). Contributions of active and dynamic self-regulation to learning. Innovative Higher Education, 17, 125-136. doi:10.1007/BF00917134), which are what they have learned to accomplish in the 10 million or so years of their evolutionary history.

    How about people? How do they differ in their BSOBS for self regulation? For that I will leave you with the following quote from Iran-Nejad, A., & Winsler, A. (2000). Bartlett’s schema theory and modern accounts of learning and remembering. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 21(1), 5-35.

    “The nature of executive self-regulation. How does a system consisting of subsystems
    capable of dynamic self-regulation manage to “turn round upon” its
    own subsystems and engage them in executive self-regulation! As already suggested
    in the tree analogy, organisms, like plants, are capable of dynamic construction.
    But, unlike plans, they are also capable of executive construction.
    In Bartlett’s terms, plants are unable to tum round upon their branches or
    other internal self-organizing parts to control their activity. What happens
    beyond dynamic self-regulation, therefore, constitutes “a crucial step in
    organic development. It is where and why consciousness comes in (and] it is
    what gives consciousness its most prominent function” (p. 206). Bartlett said,
    “I wish I knew exactly how it was done. [And) on the basis of my experiments
    I can make one suggestion” (p. 206). His suggestion involved several important
    aspects” (p. 29)..

  4. Douglas Fenner // October 5, 2016 at 9:32 am // Reply

    The article mistakenly says “genetic causes of plant evolution.” No, genes don’t cause evolution. Selection causes evolution, and random chance events cause genetic drift in populations. The modern fascination with genetic mechanisms seems for most people to be far more important than selection, and people easily seem to think that genetics is all there is to evolution. Not so. The phenotype is what is selected, and if it correlates with genes, then genes get selected and the species evolves. That means the living organism is critical, as well as the selective pressure, things that cause mortality, and which affect reproduction (where reproduction itself differs, mortality is not actually required).

  5. Monica R. Favre // October 5, 2016 at 2:56 pm // Reply

    To address comments on plant migration:

    Thank you all contributors for an interesting discussion on the details of plant migration.

    I changed the word “migrate” to “actively walk, swim or fly away.”

    Understanding that indeed plants benefit from wind, pollinators or other mechanisms to grow new individuals in different locations, it remains common understanding that a single individual plant cannot replant itself somewhere in response to sudden hostile climate. Or as mentioned by Asghar Iran-Nejad, plants lack active or executive self-regulation.

    This was the meaning of the original text, not intended to underestimate the mechanisms of plant evolution, but to bring attention to the matter in question, that is what biological variability individual plants carry that allows some of them to survive locally, and thus for the species to evolve. Hope this helps.

    To address Douglas Fenner comment of genetic causes of evolution:

    Thank you for your call for clarification.

    The sentence “…understanding the genetic causes of plant evolution…” is given in the context of the Research Topic described by the editors to have the “…ultimate goal of understanding the genetic causes of morphological variation and adaptation.”

    In writing for a broader audience, and with the Editor’s approval, I maintained “genetic causes,” but replaced “morphological variation and adaptation” with “plant evolution” in the post.

    This seems correct in this context: “genetic” refers broadly to gene allele variability; “causes” refers to their ability to confer an individual with phenotypes (such as a certain morphology) that can meet a given environmental challenge; and “evolution” refers to naturally selected changes in the population frequency of the genetically-caused phenotypes, because the phenotypes are better adapted to the environmental challenge.

    The choice was for a simpler way of saying “understanding what kinds of genes cause phenotypes that enable plant survival, and how climate changes pushes their evolution.”

    • Asghar Iran-Nejad // October 6, 2016 at 5:30 pm // Reply

      Good thinking. Changing migrate to “active relocation” broadens migration to include all kinds of “active self regulation” unique to the animal kingdom. Animals actively relocate but also do other things like digging nests deep in the ground and build homes. Still birds fly to relocate and other animals that are tied to the ground must perish or outrun the predator. What do plants do that cannot but stay put because they are tied to one spot. They cannot actively relocate but they do, obviously, survive. Otherwise, they would not be here. What survival tools do they use? We may borrow from the realm of biofunctional self-regulation to assume that, in order to survive, plants engage in dynamic (or nonexecutive) self-regulation. Animals also engage in dynamic self-regulation in addition to their dynamic self-regulation, Thus, at least from the standpoint of biofunctional perspective, active self-regulation separates the the animal and plant kingdoms; dynamic self-regulation joins them. Now active self-regulation is commonly defined in terms of allocating attention to such things as wings and legs. For reasons beyond the scope of here, biofunctional theory defines active self-regulation as allocating contribution. Thus, animals pay attention to their legs and wings; but in doing so, they also delegate contribution to them, which then do spontaneously on their own. This is possible because animals are biofunctional systems of biofunctional subsystems (BSOBS). As a result, the biofunction system, the first BS delegates contribution to the second BS and lives happily, more or less the rest of the way (see Iran-Nejad, A. (1990). Active and dynamic self-regulation of learning processes. Review of Educational Research, 60, 573-602). What is ingenious about the plant kingdom, is that plant delegate contributions not only to their subsystems (e.g., photosynthesis) but also to worldly things that are not thier biofunctional subsystems (e.g., wind). A cross-diciplinary approach might shed light on the survival ways and means in the plant kingdom and enable scientist to figure out to what extent plants may carry out or fail to carry out their survival ways and means through tight unprecedented spots. I hope all this makes some sense. Thank you Monica and other contributing colleages..

  6. Thank you for sharing so valueable article.

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