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Plant life cycles: Predicting the impacts of climate change

Researchers from Israel have introduced a new database that is the first of its kind to combine data on plant distribution and life cycles on a global scale. This research has implications for understanding the impact of climate change on plant life, particularly annuals, and could shape future agricultural practices and conservation efforts.

The study was led by Dr. Niv DeMalach of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Itay Mayrose of Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Tyler Poppenwimer, a researcher at the FDA. 

The newly created database is extensive, including information on the life cycles of around 235,000 species – equivalent to 67 percent of species known to science – collected over an 80-year span.

Perennials vs. annuals 

Plants are broadly classified into perennials, which live for more than a year, and annuals, which complete their life cycle in a single season. 

While perennials, such as grasses, trees, and bushes, form the bulk of the world’s flora and are crucial for ecosystem stability, annuals dominate agricultural lands and our diets, being a primary source of carbohydrates and proteins.

Annual distribution 

Contrary to previous assumptions, the research identified that the abundance of annuals is not uniform worldwide. Their distribution is significantly influenced by seasonal climates rather than average annual temperature and rainfall. 

The study provided a surprising revelation that annuals are less prevalent globally than previously estimated, occupying less than six percent of plant species compared to the earlier assumed 12 percent.

Study implications 

The findings shed light on historical human agricultural practices, particularly in the Middle East, where the climate favored the cultivation of annuals, thus facilitating the birth of agriculture. 

The study also raises concerns for the future. It supports the prediction that the prevalence of annuals will increase due to human impact, which could potentially harm the environment due to their less efficient role in carbon sequestration compared to perennials.

Study significance 

“The study both helps explain human history and is relevant for the future of humankind. It helps us understand why agriculture, which is the basis for human civilization, first appeared in the Middle East,” said Dr. DeMalach.

“Our region is unusual in its high proportion of annuals, and now we know why – it has the right climate conditions. Food production is based mainly on annual species. This is true today, and it was true thousands of years ago.”

“These conditions facilitated the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society. Regarding the future, our model suggests that the human species has become the most influential factor on the planet, and not only will its impact have consequences for wild plant life, but the changes caused will also affect human life in turn.”

Upcoming challenges

Dr. DeMalach said that one of the great challenges facing humanity in the 21st century is providing food for billions of people with minimal damage to the environment. 

“Therefore, extensive efforts are being made to shift from annual crops to perennial crops, which are  more environmentally friendly,” said Dr. DeMalach. “The problem today is that perennial crops are still less productive, and there is great debate as to whether they can be made more productive in the future.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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