Mustard cress is pictured growing on a beach in northern Sweden. Photo by MPI f. Developmental Biology/M. Exposito-Alonso
Dec. 19 (UPI) -- Studies suggest changes in precipitation patterns and an increase in the prevalence of prolonged droughts, not rising temperatures, are the greatest threats to plant health.
But as a new study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution showed, not all plant populations will be equally at risk. The study is one of the first to test how different populations of the same plant species will be impacted by climate change.
The results of the study suggest plants living in places that already experience high levels of precipitation variability and frequent droughts will be better able to survive climate change.
Researchers with the Max Planck Institute in Germany planted mustard cress at dozens of locations in North Africa, Spain, central Europe and northern Sweden. Scientists subjected the plants to severe drought and observed their ability to survive.
Genomic analysis revealed mutations correlated with adaptive traits and survivability. Using the latest climate models, researchers mapped the different genetic variations linked with plants' adaptability.
Researchers found the plants in Central Europe were the first to die. Plants grown in the Mediterranean and northern Sweden proved the most resilient.
"I was shocked to touch the soil in the pots of plants from northern Sweden and Spain, finding it completely dry and brittle, while the plants survived with rich, green leaves," Moises Exposito-Alonso, a biologist at the the Max Planck Institute, said in a news release.
Researchers believe the cold winters in northern Sweden replicate drought conditions, as most of the water remains frozen and inaccessible for much for the year.
"I traveled to Sweden, where I observed plants surviving in the same way in their natural environment. It reminded me of seeing mustard cress thrive in the broken clay of dried-out river beds where I grew up in Spain," Exposito-Alonso said. "Many botanists and also others think of mustard cress as being the lab rat of plant biologists, but what few realize is that it lives in extreme environments, making it ideal for studying adaptation to climate change."
In the coming decades, Central Europe is predicted to receive less rainfall and experience a greater number of extreme droughts. The newly compiled maps show the plants in the region are without the genetic variants needed to help them survive long dry periods.
Researchers suggest plants with the proper genetic variants could be relocated to help save populations that are more vulnerable.
"The chance of a species to withstand global warming will likely to depend on its diversity, especially whether it has already today individuals adapted to extreme conditions," said researcher Hernán Burbano.