Media Releases

Seed time-capsule will aid study of plant evolution amid environmental change

October 14, 2011

TORONTO, ON – Every­thing that sci­en­tists can ever know about long-gone crea­tures is what they can deduce from fos­sils. But what if they could res­ur­rect actu­al spec­i­mens and com­pare their fea­tures with their mod­ern-day descen­dants? That’s a notion that has Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to biol­o­gists help­ing to cre­ate a seed bank that will let future researchers do exact­ly that with plants, allow­ing them to mea­sure evo­lu­tion caused by glob­al change.

“Today’s plants are the ances­tors of future gen­er­a­tions,” says Arthur Weis, a U of T ecol­o­gy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist, and direc­tor of the Kof­fler Sci­en­tif­ic Reserve locat­ed north of Toron­to in King City, Ontario. “Decades from now, plant biol­o­gists can go to the same pop­u­la­tions as we are col­lect­ing from now and col­lect seeds from ‘descen­dant’ gen­er­a­tions. By grow­ing the ances­tor seeds and descen­dant seeds under the same con­di­tions, they will be able to detect which traits have changed and which have not.”

Project Base­line – an under­tak­ing of a group of plant evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists that includes Weis – was award­ed US$ 1.2 mil­lion from the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, to spend the next four years col­lect­ing seeds that will be banked for any­where from five to 50 years. Researchers will then be able to draw on them to ana­lyze how a species reacts to changes in their sur­round­ings such as cli­mate change, species inva­sions, and new land-use pat­terns.

The researchers have iden­ti­fied 34 tar­get species that are com­mon, easy to grow and well-stud­ied by ecol­o­gists and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists, as well as some close rel­a­tives of those species. “We’ve cho­sen ones with a vari­ety of traits, such as dif­fer­ent flow­er­ing times or pol­li­na­tion strate­gies, as well as diverse roles in their ecosys­tems,” says Weis. “The goal is to gath­er seeds from thou­sands of plants across 20 broad­ly dis­trib­uted loca­tions, such as nation­al parks, reserves, and long-term research sites – places where the plants will like­ly still be 50 years from now.”

The Kof­fler Sci­en­tif­ic Reserve will be the anchor loca­tion for the Cana­di­an effort. It will also col­lect seeds of sev­er­al addi­tion­al species of local con­cern, includ­ing Black-eyed Susan, Queen Ann’s lace and Tril­li­um plants.

Weis and sev­er­al col­leagues pro­posed the idea in 2008, after real­iz­ing that plant evo­lu­tion occurs on time scales biol­o­gists could mea­sure if they had the right mate­ri­als. In 2005, Weis con­duct­ed an exper­i­ment which showed that a five-year drought in Cal­i­for­nia had caused change in the flow­er­ing time of the mus­tard plant Bras­si­ca rapa, using pre-drought seeds stored in the researchers’ lab freez­er. Hav­ing those seeds was mere­ly for­tu­itous, though it pro­vid­ed the ger­mi­na­tion of the idea to set up a seed bank express­ly for future evo­lu­tion­ary stud­ies.

The project is unique among oth­er exist­ing pro­grams that only col­lect seeds of species threat­ened by extinc­tion. “Oth­er projects are Noah’s Ark-type of projects that serve a con­ser­va­tion pur­pose,” says Weis. “Our project seeks species that are in abun­dance and will be around in 50 years, not to pre­serve them but to bet­ter under­stand the nuts and bolts details of evo­lu­tion­ary change.”

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For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Arthur Weis
Direc­tor, Kof­fler Sci­en­tif­ic Reserve
Depart­ment of Ecol­o­gy and Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­o­gy

Sean Bet­tam
Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence