Skip to main content


Gene flow may help plants adapt to climate change


Genes moving from outlying populations of monkeyflower plants in the eastern Sierra Nevada may help high elevation populations adapt to climate change. BioInv IGERT trainee and REACH IGERT Bridge RA Jay Sexton, REACH PI Sharon Strauss, and co-PI Kevin Rice crossed mid-elevation cut-leaved monkeyflowers with plants from lower elevation, then grew the offspring at the lower elevation and measured how the mixing of genes from different elevations affected the plants’ ability to live at the warm edge of their range. They hypothesized that either the low elevation genes would benefit the plants living in the warmer environment, or alternatively, that the genes from the higher elevation would swamp any influence of the genes from lower elevation, with no benefit as a result.

Sexton and his collaborators found that the gene flow actually helped the plants adapt to a warmer habitat.

According to Strauss, their work may aid biologists develop strategies for populations threatened by climate change. “In extreme cases where we might consider augmenting genetic resources available to imperiled populations, it might be best to obtain these genes from populations inhabiting similar kinds of habitats,” Strauss said. Further, rather than considering edge populations as genetically meager, Sexton said that they should be high-priority conservation targets because they may possess adaptations to their unique environments.

Their study appeared in the 27 June on-line edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was funded by the California Native Plant Society, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Science Foundation. Sexton currently is an NSF International Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia.