How Plants' Built-In Tools Could Help Them Adapt to Climate Change

New research shows plants could have the tools to adapt and survive climate changes. But how will those changes affect us?

Climate change is going to take chocolate away from us. Coffee, too. It’s going to change where wine grows. It’s already pushing back the pleasures of fall, the reds and oranges and purples of falling leaves. Environmental scientists are asking when and how they should move certain animal species to ensure their survival, because animals don’t migrate fast enough to outrun the damage climate change will wreak on their habitats.

But if animals are hurt by their inability to move quickly, just think about the potential devastation to plants, which are literally rooted to the ground. Twenty years ago, in The End of Nature, author Bill McKibben tried to make it clear what that means: “Forget carbon for a moment, forget the feedback loops. The trees will die. Consider nothing more than that—just that the trees will die.” What he meant, though, was that the trees we're used to finding in particular places will die. Some types of trees will survive, in places we don't expect them. Plants are surprisingly adaptable.

A new study from researchers from Brown University, in fact, shows the impressive ways plants cope with climate change. The Brown team studied a flowering European plant, known commonly as thale cress, that grows in a variety of climates: cold Finland, warm Spain, the oceanic United Kingdom, and continental Germany. Researchers identified the genetic signature that helps the plant survive and reproduce in various climates, and they were surprised to find how much that signature differed in the various climates. "The genetic basis of survival and reproduction is almost entirely different in different regions," said one researcher.

To the Brown team, the results showed that plants aren’t rooted in their ways: they could have the internal tools to adapt and survive. Scientists are still working to understand how plants respond to climate changes, though, and this study concentrated on just one species. Not all will have the same ability to change.

The study comes at a time when many in the climate movement are pushing to divorce climate issues from environmentalism. Alexis Madrigal, who’s written extensively about clean tech, put it succinctly a few weeks ago: "Stopping global warming isn’t about nature or 'saving the planet.' Some set of plants and animals will survive," he wrote.

So the important question for humanity is which species will survive. Will it be the plants and animals on which we’ve come to depend for sustenance? Will the plants that survive be able to feed the world's growing population? Will the average American still be able to afford coffee and chocolate? If the plants we’re dependent on do adapt to survive, will they adapt in a way that’s beneficial to us—will chocolate still taste good?

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Deanster1983

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