Effect of climate change on genetic variation within a species

Wild plant and animal species seem unable to keep up with climate change. The species are indeed moving north with higher temperatures but much of the genetic variation is staying behind in the original habitat. This has been found by scientists of Plant Research International. They are now investigating how this genetic variation can be kept intact.

icoon bloemmenveld

The genetic variation within a species, plant or animal, in the wild is important for the survival of such a species in the long term. A wide variation means that there will always be individuals in a population that can adapt to new conditions, such as drought or a new pest or disease.
A wide genetic variation in wild plant species is also very important for agriculture. It means that such a population will always include plants with inherent resistance to certain pests or diseases. Breeders are using such traits to make cultivated crops resistant to such a pest or disease.

Building up a population requires time

Question now is whether this genetic variation will remain intact when species are moving as result of climate change. Our scientists are conducting model calculations to investigate this. They calculate the annual rate at which the climate that is suitable for a species is moving north as result of the increase in temperature. They then calculate whether the particular species can move north with the increasing temperature as well as the extent of the genetic variation in those ‘pioneers’. The first results indicate that only a small part of the initial genetic variation is moving along to the north. This means that the species in the new, northern habitats have a much lower genetic variation than those in the southern habitats.
A species needs a lot of time for re-acquiring a wide genetic variation. And the species will not be given this time because climate is changing rapidly. This means that species are much less adaptable to new threats and this results in fewer individuals surviving situations with, e.g., extreme precipitation, drought, or a further increase in temperature. This will finally result in an earlier extinction of species.
The scientists are now investigating how a species can be protected in the original habitat to maintain genetic variation. Setting up a sort of ‘safe haven’ for a species is one of the possibilities. Helping species to migrate is another option.