Curator

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Prof. Ian T. Baldwin

Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Jena

Phone: +49 3641 57-1101
Fax: +49 3641 57-1102

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Cell Biology . Ecology . Evolutionary Biology . Genetics . Plant Research

Interactions of plants with their environment

The laboratory-based study of plant genetics cannot fulfil its potential until it includes reference to the natural environment in which plants evolved. Genetically-equipped field laboratories and molecularly-trained field biologists are needed to explore the links between plants and their environment, and use them for practical application. Harnessing certain plant traits could help produce high-yield crops suitable for a warming world.

Plants influence everything from food chains to climate change. Yet we know little about the traits that allow plants to survive and adapt to their habitat or to a warming planet. We are a long way from being able to harness these adaptations for our own benefit. Our failure to understand these traits is in part due to the split of biology research into molecular–cellular and ecological–evolutionary disciplines. A new generation of plant scientists is needed to realize the full potential of plant genetics.

PLANTS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Plants form the basis of most food chains on the planet. To pass on their genes, plants must find mates, avoid being eaten and compete for resources in an ever-changing environment — all while being rooted to the spot. They have evolved a myriad of strategies to deal with these environmental challenges.

Most adaptation strategies are chemical, many involving the production of secondary metabolites, such as alkaloids and steroids, which we, in turn, rely on as the basis of our pharmacological recipe book. Some 100,000 secondary metabolites have been discovered thus far, and technological advances will probably see this number double in the next decade.

The environment shapes plants, but plants also influence the environment. They store carbon, fix nitrogen and produce oxygen1. They shape weather patterns, provide flood defence, purify water, provide food, and offer solace and inspiration.

With nearly 7 billion humans affecting the environmental composition of the planet, however, plants are being forced to function under conditions outside their recent evolutionary experience, and it is unclear what the knock-on effects will be. Modelling studies are beginning to unravel the links between our changing environment and ecosystem health, but more research is needed to inform legislation.

 
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