Tuesday, August 3, 2010 - 3:20 PM

OOS 19-6: Evolution and vegetation change: Are modern plants predictive of the future in climate changes studies?

Joy K. Ward, University of Kansas

Background/Question/Methods   In climate change studies, ecologists often assume that the genetic composition of plant populations will remain static as global change drivers continue to alter the planet. Perhaps this is because it was once assumed that environmental changes were occurring at a faster rate than the potential for evolutionary responses of plants. Recent studies, however, have found high levels of genotypic variation for plant responses to climate change, and other studies provide evidence for rapid evolution of plants in response to novel environments. Thus, it is critical that we begin incorporating the potential for genetic changes into our future predictions of global change effects on plants. In this talk, we will explore some examples of how adaptive changes can greatly alter our predictions of plant responses to specific global change factors, such as changing water availability and atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Results/Conclusions   Studies will be highlighted that aim to determine the primary evolutionary mechanisms that alter plant responses to climate change factors. For example, we have shown that elevated CO2 can influence the expression of floral initiation genes in Arabidopsis thaliana, and such effects may cause unexpected developmental disruptions that ultimately influence plant productivity. We have also shown that white ash trees are adapted to differences in water availability across their native range, and that these genetic differences among trees largely influence their responses to drier climates predicted for the future. Finally, we show carbon isotope data illustrating the physiological responses of juniper trees from the last ice age through the present, providing an example of how physiological responses of trees to past climates may inform our future predictions of plant responses to anthropogenic changes. Taken together, this talk will highlight our need to incorporate evolutionary responses of plants into future climate change scenarios, and will emphasize the need to better understand the primary physiological and evolutionary mechanisms that may produce unexpected responses of plants in the future.