Carnegie postdoc wins fellowship to study plants’ adaptation to climate change

Palo Alto, CA—Carnegie’s Megan Ruffley was awarded a prestigious Plant Genome Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology from the National Science Foundation to study the genetics underpinning a plant’s ability to adapt to a changing climate.

Plants are fundamental to life as we know it. They make Earth’s atmosphere oxygen rich and form the basis of our food chain. They provide useful materials from fabric to lumber to medicines. Plants also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, taking up and sequestering about a quarter of the emissions released by human activity. All of this means that it is crucial to understand how plant life will respond to a warming world.

“As the climate shifts, will plants migrate to more suitable habitats, adapt to the new conditions, or face extinction,” asked Ruffley.  “This is one of the most major questions facing plant scientists right now.”

To tackle this challenge, she will investigate how a plant’s genetics constrain its ability to adapt to the environment.  

When a gene is altered by a mutation, the resulting physiological changes can make it easier or harder for an organism to survive—or the effect could be neutral. This drives natural selection. However, evolutionary theory predicts that mutations that affect more than one trait slow down the process of adaptation, because the altered gene could simultaneously affect one trait in a way that improves survival and another in a way that inhibits it.

Ruffley will use a massive dataset of genetic information about the experimental mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana to identify multi-trait mutations that are slowing down adaptation and ultimately to translate that knowledge to sorghum, a major bioenergy crop.

“The rapid pace of climate change means that we are in a race against time to predict plant populations’ likelihood of survival,” explained Moises Exposito-Alonso, who is one of two Carnegie staff advisors to the project along with Sue Rhee.

“The knowledge gleaned from Megan’s work could help guide land management and conservation strategies, including efforts to engineer at-risk plants to persevere in the face of warming conditions or droughts,” Rhee added.