How to Catch Evolution in the Act

Scientists are planning to take advantage of global climate change and catch evolution in the act. They hope to collect millions of seeds from wild plants over specific time intervals and, for the first time, document how individual plants adapt to changes in the climate.

"Changes in climate are already beginning to have detrimental effects on many species, and we want to understand that," said evolutionary biologist Steven Franks of Fordham University, one of the leaders of the project.

The project is called the "Resurrection Initiative" because the goal is to provide future scientists with pristine seeds collected during this period of relatively rapid climate change. Someday, those seeds could be planted alongside members of the same family so that changes could be documented, thus providing a better understanding of the fundamentals of evolutionary change.

This seed bank would be different from the many other existing banks, including the now-famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway, where seeds are being collected from around the world to help preserve species that are now in danger of going extinct. The purpose of the new bank would be basic science on evolutionary changes, with the possible goal of using that information to help stop some species from dying out, not simply replacing them after they are gone.

"It's a perfect opportunity right now to understand how organisms evolved in response to changing conditions," said Franks, indicating that there is some urgency in getting the project going on a broad scale as soon as possible. Leading experts on various aspects of evolution, from an array of institutions across the country, are involved in the project.

The evolutionary seed bank is the brainchild of Arthur E. Weis, who is now at the University of Toronto. Weis invited the experts to a meeting last year at the University of California, Irvine, when he was on the faculty there. The meeting, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, resulted in a paper published in the October issue of the journal BioScience, outlining the project. Funding has not yet been secured, but the NSF, which sponsors most academic research in this country, is clearly interested.

Evolutionary biologist Susan Mazer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, an expert on wild flowering plants and a member of the group, said one goal is to create baseline data "by collecting seeds at a given point in time and archiving them under ideal environmental conditions so that they all stay alive, and so that 10, 20 and 30 years down the road, we can compare them to seeds that we collect in the future to see how the gene pool has changed."

The genesis of the project actually dates back a few years ago when Franks, lead author of the paper, was Weis's graduate student.

"We were both interested in looking at evolutionary responses to climate change," Franks recalled. Franks zeroed in on plant that thrives in southern California, Brassica rapa, or wild mustard. He began collecting seeds from several areas, documenting where and when he collected then, and when the individual plants flowered -- some early in the season, some much later.

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