Phenotypic plasticity and plant adaptation to variable climates


Niek Scheepens (PI), Oliver Bossdorf


Alexander von Humboldt Foundation


September 2014 - August 2016

In a nutshell

Changes in climate variability are one of the least understood aspects of global climate change. In this project, we test whether the ability of plants to deal with increased climate variability is a variable and evolvable trait, so that we can expect plants to adapt to such changes in the future

Project description

The effects of global climate change on plant growth is a hot topic, but research mainly focuses on changes in temperature and precipitation means. In 2014, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awarded a research fellowship to Niek Scheepens to investigate variability and evolvability of phenotypic plasticity to climate variability.


In a series of experiments using Arabidopsis thaliana as an experimental system we first evaluate the relationships between the precipitation variability at plant origins and phenotypic plasticity in response to watering variability in a common garden experiment with 200 natural ecotypes from Eurasia and two watering treatments differing only in variability. Secondly, we test the adaptive significance of phenotypic plasticity under variable climatic conditions through a multi-generation selection experiment on standing variation in communities of selected ecotypes that showed a broad range in plasticity in the first experiment. We use growth cabinets differing in temperature variability, and similar watering regimes as in the first experiment will be used. Communities are composed to reflect diversity with decreasing spatial scales in order to investigate the response to selection under increasingly realistic conditions but with decreasing genetic diversity. Finally, we improve our understanding of the mechanism through which phenotypic plasticity confers fitness advantages by performing a common garden experiment with multiple crossed environmental treatments, i.e. frequency, timing and intensity of drought stress, applied to 30 selected ecotypes with a broad range in phenotypic plasticity.