Plants may adapt faster to climate change than previously thought, new study shows

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

File photo of Dactylorhiza fachsii, an example of a common spotted orchid.
Image: Wikimedia Commons contributor Chrizzles.

A new study suggests that plants can adapt to changing climatic conditions more efficiently than previously thought, making the onset of climate change less of a concern for plant species around the world. Jodrell Laboratory in the London Botanical Gardens has discovered that plants can alter specific components of their genetic make-up to suit rising temperatures and varying levels of rainfall that would otherwise take hundred of years to develop through natural selection, via a process known as epigenetics.

This newly discovered ability suggests that mass plant extinction brought on by climate change may not happen to the extent that scientists previously predicted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claimed in 2007 that "20 to 30 per cent of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5C to 2.5C", a statement that now needs re-evaluating.

The study focused on three species of common spotted orchid that grow in varying environments. These plants had nearly identical genetic heritage, but thrived under very different conditions. Mark Chase of Jodrell Laboratory claims that "[their] results are particularly relevant in the present context of widespread environmental challenges and give us more hope in the adaptive potential of organisms [...] it is not instantaneous, but it is much faster than we thought previously".

It is still unclear whether plants would adapt in the same way under "extreme" climate change.