Plants to Climate Change: Please Leaf Us Alone

Reading all the recent news reports about how the drought is wreaking havoc on our environment, it’s hard not to have what could be defined as an impulsive, almost emotional, reaction. But who knew that soil would do the same thing?

Science News set me straight this morning declaring, “Soil microbes are impulsive. So much so that they help plants face the challenges of a rapidly changing climate. Jen Lau and Jay Lennon, Michigan State University biologists studied how plants and microbes work together to help plants survive the effects of global changes, such as increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations, warmer temperatures and altered precipitation patterns.”

“Researchers already knew that drought stress reduced plant growth and altered their life cycle. The team was surprised, though, to observe that the plants were slow to evolve and, instead, microbes did most of the work of helping plants survive in new, drier environments. This happened because the microbes were quick to adapt to the changing environment.”

MORE: One-Fifth of World's Plants at Risk of Extinction

That’s a good thing because as Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) states, “When an animal gets too hot or too cold, or feels pangs of hunger or thirst, it tends to relocate–to where it’s cooler or hotter, or to the nearest place where food or water can be found.  But what about vegetative life?  What can a plant do under similar circumstances? Plants can’t change the climate and they can’t uproot themselves to move to a more favorable spot.”

“Yet they do respond successfully to changes in environmental conditions in diverse ways, many of which involve modifications of the way they grow and develop," according to CSHL. Plant biologists at CSHL discovered how a particular gene allowed a species of grass to evolve and respond to changes in its environment.

“Central to this work is the team’s identification of the role played by a gene called grassy tillers1, or gt1, whose expression, they confirmed, is controlled by light signaling. The discovery of gt1’s role is full of implication, for it occurs in maize, one of the world’s most important food crops, and the genetic trick it performs, which results in changing the plant’s shape, suggests how maize’s ancestor in the grass family was domesticated by people in Mexico and Central America thousands of years ago.”

So it’s heartening to know that there are researchers like Lau, Lennon, and the biologists at CSHL who are finding ways to offer some hope to us and—more importantly—the plants. And that there are organizations like Plantlife, a United Kingdom charity “that speaks up for the nation’s wild plants.”

In their words, “Plants form the basis of life, the success of mankind’s ability to meet the challenges of climate change will depend on how well it conserves the world’s plants.”

Do you think we're paying enough attention to the effects of climate change on plant life?

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Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |