Rapid, parallel adaptation in the Anthropocene

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences


As human activities have an increasingly detrimental effect on the natural environment it has become critically important to understand how habitats and species will cope with such rapid changes. The ability of a species to adapt is a crucial component of its resilience to climate change and this is reflected in recent attempts to include some component of adaptation in predictive models. However, we have a very poor understanding of the factors that might predict the evolvability of a species and so it is currently not possible to separate adaptive ability from plasticity, or broad niche breadth, based on the current environmental tolerances of a species. A first step in understanding whether evolution might be predictable in wild organisms is to understand the extent to which the adaptive process is repeatable and reproducible and what genomic signatures/features allow rapid adaptation to take place (making it identifiable).

To bridge this knowledge gap we need to study instances of contemporary parallel adaptation (<200 years), such as the rapid adaptation of Silene uniflora to heavy-metal contaminated soils at abandoned mines. This project will use state-of-the-art genetic/genomic analyses, quantitative genetics and experimental evolution studies. It will investigate the roles of standing genetic variation in the adaptive process, reveal the key signatures of rapid parallel evolution and investigate the potential for strong natural selection to drive reproductive isolation of populations at very small scales (i.e., a few meters). In so doing, it will uncover the genetic and genomic patterns that will help us to recognise and estimate the potential of plant species to adapt to rapid and extreme environmental change. As genome-scale sequencing becomes more accessible, it will be possible to analyse and assess genetic variation quickly and easily in any species. Hidden in this wealth of genomic data are the clues to whether species will adapt or perish; the proposed project will help researchers to decode those clues.

Planned Impact

Improvements to the public understanding and awareness of science: Silene uniflora (sea campion) is a common and charismatic feature of coastal habitats in the UK and Ireland. This rapid "evolution on our doorstep" provides a link between the objects people use daily (e.g. zinc galvanised products, copper wiring) and evolutionary processes and conservation. As such, S. uniflora is an excellent species to capture the attention of students and the public, promoting understanding of evolutionary genetics, speciation, conservation, human impacts on plant diversity and the ingenuity of plant responses to human disturbance. These benefits can be realised in the short and medium term through public interaction at events (e.g., the annual Science Festival events at RBG Kew and Pint of Science Festival) and by producing interpretation materials for the numerous SSSIs where the species occurs. Encouraging interest in plants and evolutionary biology in school children can be achieved via school visits organised with the public learning and engagement department at RBG Kew.

Training skilled people: The research will provide training in scientific skills that are transferable to professions outside academia. PDRA - the communication, bioinformatics/data processing, statistical and laboratory skills developed by the PDRA are widely transferable to biological science disciplines, as well as in non-scientific fields in industry. Technician - the experimental techniques (e.g., plant propagation), forward planning/time management and laboratory skills gained by the technician are transferrable to many areas of plant science and industry. Summer internships - development of skills in communication and interpretation will be invaluable to undergraduates/postgraduates interested in science communication, journalism and editing.

Conservation of biodiversity, management and improvement of contaminated sites: Heavily contaminated mine sites in the UK support unique ecosystems and metallophtye communities are of conservation interest and protected as Calaminarian grasslands under Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive. However, contaminated soils are also a source of pollution that can have detrimental effects on other natural systems and agricultural land (Navarro et al., J. Geochem. Explor. 96, 183-193, 2008). These phytotoxic metals also adversely affect soil microorganisms and are the most common heavy metal contaminants of agricultural land via atmospheric deposition in the UK (Defra research project SP0547, 2005). Phytostabilisation of polluted soils may be a fruitful method of ring-fencing and improving contaminated land. S. uniflora forms spreading vegetation mats on contaminated sites. Such pioneer, tolerant plants provide a vegetative cover that minimises leaching and movement of contaminated dust and soil, and can eventually lay down top soils which can act as a barrier, sealing off the polluted substrate. Understanding the genes underlying heavy-metal adaptation will allow identification of suitable plants for remediation efforts.

This project and future studies will feed into Defra's strategic priority of improving the natural environment and its strategic evidence priorities in sustainable management of natural resources and greater resilience in the natural environment. The outcomes will contribute to the evidence strategies of Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, allowing conservation decisions to be based on sound scientific evidence. In the longer term, this research will make it possible to assess the usefulness of these plants for phytostabilisation of polluted soils. Phytostabilisation research would be valuable to statutory agencies in the UK and Ireland. It will also benefit industries which produce heavy-metal contaminants by providing potential methods to minimise the impact of their activities on natural systems.


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