Stanford, CA— Plant genetic diversity in Central Europe could collapse due to temperature extremes and drought brought on by climate change, according to a new paper in Nature led by Moises Exposito-Alonso, who joins Carnegie next month from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology and UC Berkeley. Because only a few individuals of a species are already adapted to extreme climate conditions, the overall species genetic diversity could be greatly diminished, according to the findings.

A team of researchers from the Max Planck institute, University of Tübingen, Technical University of Madrid, and UC Berkeley who analyzed variants of the mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana—commonly used for biological research—which were collected from more than 500 locations throughout Europe and grown in Spain and Germany under low-rainfall conditions. This revealed how individual plants responded to heat and drought.

The investigators were particularly interested in how the unique blend of genetic mutations that allowed different individuals of the same species to resist the conditions of their experimentally simulated climates.

“Some of these mutations could confer physiological advantages in a changing climate,” explained Exposito-Alonso, the paper’s first author. “So, the primary goal of this study was to rank their importance for the future survival of the species, something we just learned how to do statistically”

This data was then combined with models that predict how temperatures and precipitation are expected to shift geographically in the next few decades in order to understand how plant genetic biodiversity will be affected by climate change caused by human activity.

"On the basis of our calculations, up to the year 2050 we can determine a significant change in the mutations that will be needed to survive in Southern to Central Europe,” Exposito-Alonso said.

Above: Aerial picture of the experimental site in Madrid, Spain. Top right image: Researchers working during winter in Tübingen, Germany. Both photographs are courtesy of Moises Exposito-Alonso.“It is remarkable how much individuals from different parts of Europe differ in their ability to withstand future climate conditions,” added Detlef Weigel, Director at the Max Planck Institute, where the work was coordinated.

As precipitation decreases and temperatures rise, especially in so-called transition zones between the Mediterranean and northern Europe, the team’s predictions indicate that many of the continent’s predominant plant species will not possess the characteristics to survive.

These patterns might be shared across many plant species of Europe. While genetic information for most species is still lacking, the rapid advance in modern genetic research methods allows investigators to obtain this information for a rapidly increasing number of species. With this information in hand, it will be possible to improve predictions of the geographic locations where a species would be most at risk of suffering from the consequences of climate change.

Also participating in this study were Oliver Bossdorf, Hernán A. Burbano, Rasmus Nielsen, and a team of experimental researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology and the Technical University of Madrid.


This research was funded by the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society.