Article image

Study reveals how plants adapt to changing climates

Scientists at UC Riverside have made a significant breakthrough in understanding how plants adapt to varying light and temperature conditions – adaptations that are crucial for their survival. The study is particularly relevant for anticipating how plants respond to changing climates.

The research, detailed in two recent articles in the journal Nature Communications, sheds light on the inner workings of previously mysterious structures within plant cells.

The role of organelles in changing climates

Traditionally, research has focused on well-defined organelles within plant cells, such as mitochondria and the nucleus. However, the team at UC Riverside has shifted focus to a different type of structure: membrane-less organelles.

These organelles, unlike their membrane-bound counterparts, can dynamically assemble and disassemble within the cell, particularly in response to light, playing a critical role in adaptation to changing climates.

“At one time, people called these photobodies ‘garbage cans,’ because they didn’t understand them. When people don’t understand something, they call it useless. But they aren’t useless at all; they are a new frontier in science,” explained study senior author Dr. Meng Chen.

The revelation comes after years of research aimed at deciphering the roles that these fluid structures might play in plant adaptation.

Understanding plant sensitivity to light

The researchers have discovered that the organelles are critical for plants to detect and respond to different light intensities. By manipulating the size of these organelles, the team was able to demonstrate their function in light sensing with more clarity.

“What we saw, ultimately, is that the membrane-less organelles help plants distinguish a whole range of different light intensities. Without them, plants would not be able to ‘see’ changes in light intensity,” said Dr. Chen.

Temperature and organelle formation

Temperature plays an equally critical role in how these organelles function, especially in changing climates. The team observed that as temperatures rise, the number of organelles decreases. This variability suggests that the structures are also crucial for temperature sensing within the cell.

Surprisingly, more than half of the organelles formed near centromeres, areas of the chromosome where gene activity is typically low. This indicates a non-random pattern to organelle formation, which challenges previous assumptions that their formation was random.

Implications for agriculture and climate adaptation

The implications of these findings are vast, especially for agriculture. For example, climate change is posing significant challenges in California, where half of the country’s fruits and vegetables are grown.

Without intervention, average temperatures in the state could rise by as much as 11 degrees by the end of the century, severely affecting crop production.

“To predict and mitigate climate change, we need to understand how plants sense and respond to their environment, especially temperature,” said Chen. He further noted that temperature affects not just growth but also flowering times, fruit development, pathogen responses, and overall plant immunity.

The ongoing research at UC Riverside aims to further explore how manipulating the formation sites of these organelles could enhance plant resilience to light and temperature changes in changing climates.

Plant adaptation and food security in changing climates

The research opens up new avenues for understanding plant biology and offers hope for developing more resilient crop varieties.

As we continue to face global challenges in changing climates, the insights from UC Riverside’s pioneering work will undoubtedly play a critical role in securing food resources for future generations.

More about plants and changing climates 

Plants are intricately linked to the climate and environment in which they exist, and changes in the climate can have profound effects on plant life. As global temperatures rise and weather patterns shift due to climate change, plants face numerous challenges and adapt in various ways.

Growth patterns 

One of the most visible effects of changing climates on plants is the alteration of growth patterns. Warmer temperatures may lead to earlier flowering and fruiting times in some plants, which can disrupt the synchrony between plants and their pollinators. In other cases, prolonged heat and drought stress can reduce plant productivity, stunt growth, or increase mortality rates.

Geographical range

Changing climates can expand or shift the geographical ranges of plants. Species that were once confined to specific temperature zones might start migrating towards poles or higher elevations where conditions are cooler and more suitable for their growth. Conversely, plants that cannot adapt or migrate quickly enough may face significant population declines or even extinction in certain areas.

Extreme weather

Climate change affects the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, which can devastate plant communities. The recovery from such events can be slow and may result in long-term changes to the ecosystem structure and function.

In response to these changes, many ecosystems and the plants within them are undergoing transformations, some of which may be irreversible if climate trends continue. 

Conservation efforts, such as the creation of seed banks and the use of climate-resilient crop varieties, are critical in helping mitigate some of these impacts and in supporting the continued health and diversity of plant life around the world.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day