The home team holds the advantage over visitors, even in the plant world—but just a handful of genetic adaptations can even the playing field.
New research shows how these adaptations to different environments involve a bit of tradeoff in performance.
Genetic tradeoffs, in part, explain the rich diversity of species on earth. If all plants could perform well in all climates, the world would have similar flora from the poles to the Equator. But tradeoffs, such as protection from freezing temperatures in exchange for growing larger, limit regions where plants can flourish.
“A racecar driver in Monaco wouldn’t choose the same tires as a postal worker in the Yukon,” says Douglas Schemske, a plant biologist at Michigan State Univesity. “No single tire does well in all conditions, so drivers must choose the best tires for snow, rain, sand, or racing; biological species reflect similar performance tradeoffs.”
A new five-year study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focuses on Arabidopsis plant populations in Sweden and Italy. In direct competition, the home plants outperformed their visitors, which supports the notion that home populations are adapted to their local conditions.
Sweden vs. Italy
Examining the genetic basis of plant performance revealed the locals’ home-court secrets. Since Sweden has long, harsh winters, the Swedish plants had freezing tolerance as their major adaptive trait. The Italian plants, racing to beat hot, dry summers, devoted much of their energy to flowering in the spring ahead of the heat.
The long-held view the scientists dispelled, however, was that it takes many genes to fuel the adaptations that allow the plants to thrive in different climates.
“Even though the environments of Sweden and Italy are vastly different, we found that only 15 regions of the plant’s genome are involved in adaptation,” Schemske says.
The genetic mechanisms that allow these adaptations have relevance to understanding biodiversity, growing crops in varying climates, and projecting the impacts of global change.
With that in mind, Schemske and colleagues will focus future research on identifying the full spectrum of traits and genes required for adaptation.
Scientists from Uppsala University in Sweden and Colorado State University contributed to the study.
Source: Michigan State University