Evolution to the rescue? Understanding the evolution of plant behaviour in response to climate change

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Jon Bridle

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Jon Bridle's Profile Picture

Secondary Supervisor:

Seirian Sumner

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Seirian Sumner's Profile Picture

Additional Supervisor(s):
Simon Hiscock (University of Oxford)

Project Description:

To predict ecological resilience in response to rapid environmental change, we need to understand three things: (1) how organisms change their behaviour in different environments; (2) how these changes in behaviour compromise other aspects of their phenotype and; (3) How much genetic variation there is in these behaviours, and therefore how quickly organisms can evolve suitable responses to the novel environments that will be a widespread feature of 21st century life.

Such questions address two fundamental issues in biology: why there are limits to the range of environments a single genotype (or population) can inhabit; and what limits the flexibility (plasticity) of organisms during their lifetime?

We have been addressing these issues using field transplant experiments on Senecio daisies on Mount Etna, Sicily, combined with measurements of changes in gene expression, key phenotypes, and their effects on fitness in the field.

These studies have identified key gene networks associated with shifts in plant behaviour, and their effects on phenotypes and fitness. Interestingly, we have found that most adaptive variation in plant behaviour is only visible in novel environments. We may therefore underestimate the potential for evolution to future environments if we only study organisms in their native environments.

The project would follow up this interesting discovery using a combination of (a) conducting field experiments on Mount Etna; (b) crossing and rearing experiments at UCL and (c) analyses of variation in gene expression and its effects on fitness. It will involve extensive collaborations with partners at the Universities of Catania and Napoli, as well as at the University of Oxford, and Monash (Melbourne).

Policy Impact of Research:

These project will help us to understand how easily evolutionary trajectories, and the sensitivity of organisms, can change when faced with the novel environments typical of the Anthropocene.

As well as predicting when and where environmental change will reduce ecological resilience, these data will help us understand whether artificial selection of plant crops can engineer phenotypes that can resist multiple stresses, even if such phenotypes are rare in nature.

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