What if we could watch evolution occur? What if we could observe natural selection as it takes place, and gain an understanding about how and why genetic information changes in different plant species? Time-lapse plant videos are awesome, but this would be taking things to a whole new level.
There is a new study that aims to do just this. The study is funded by the National Science Foundation, and it is being led by scientists at the University of Minnesota. It’s called “Project Baseline” and it promises to shed some much needed light on the nature of genetic adaptation in plants.
If you paid any attention in science class, you know that the genetic makeup of plants changes over time. Scientists believe that these changes are based on natural selection – due to changes in environmental conditions, competition for resources, the behavior of predators and parasites, etc. Scientists have observed several genetic adaptations in plants, and for each adaptation they have theorized which environmental conditions caused each natural selection to occur… But they can never be sure, because the changes happened at an unknown time in the past.
Project Baseline will allow scientists to observe the genetic changes that occur in plants over a 50 year period, while various data about the environmental conditions of the plants are also tracked and recorded. By comparing genetic changes against historic environmental changes, the scientists should be able to correlate specific changes to their specific causes. This project might provide the first real-time glimpse of plant evolution in progress in the wild.
At this point, you might be picturing a bunch of scientists with a DeLorean and a lightning rod, but unfortunately they’re planning to do this whole experiment without a time machine. Here’s how it works:
Seeds will be collected from the wild. Those seeds will be divided into lots and stored in cryogenic preservation. Every 10 years, some of the seeds from the original collection will be thawed, to be compared against newly collected seeds from the wild. They will do a comparison at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years from the original collection. In this way, scientists will be able to identify genetic changes that occur in the wild over each 10 year period. They will then compare those changes against a timeline of environmental conditions, illuminating the likely causes for each particular change.
The study will collect wild seeds from a representative sample of several species of plants, including populations at different latitudes, longitudes, elevations, and ecosystems.
The process they are using has been proved by scientists in the past. It is known as the “resurrection method.” In several cases, ancient seed has been naturally preserved by tundra or sediment in a way that preserved the seed’s DNA. Scientists compare the ancient DNA against the DNA of the plant’s modern descendants. So, they know this works. But observing two strands of DNA separated by hundreds or thousands of years provides little information about the nature of the changes that have taken place over that long timeline. It is impossible to know when or why specific adaptations occurred.
Project Baseline will offer new insight into specific genetic adaptations that scientists have long theorized but have never directly observed. One of the biggest mysteries that might be explained by Project Baseline is the rate of evolution in the wild. That is, how quickly do plants adapt? Do they adapt all at once, or is there a natural progression of adaptation that we have never understood?
These are big questions with big implications, and there are many scientists today, in various fields, that could benefit from a better understanding of nature’s mechanism for genetic adaptation.
This study seems to have arrived at a very important time. Some scientists today believe that global warming will increase rapidly in the coming years and decades. Other scientists believe that we are on the verge of a minor ice age. Whatever happens, the next 50 years might hold plenty of change for the scientists to observe. Until they get that DeLorean working, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Project Baseline’s Official Page – Project Baseline – A Seedbank to Study Plant Evolution