Since the Industrial Revolution began approximately 200 years ago, global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (CO2) has increased from 270 to 401 µL L-1, and average global temperatures have risen by 0.85°C, with the most pronounced effects occurring near the poles (IPCC, 2013). In addition, the last 30 years were the warmest decades in 1,400 years (PAGES 2k Consortium, 2013). By the end of this century, [CO2] is expected to reach at least 700 µL L-1, and global temperatures are projected to rise by 4°C or more based on greenhouse gas scenarios (IPCC, 2013). Precipitation regimes also are expected to shift on a regional scale as the hydrologic cycle intensifies, resulting in greater extremes in dry versus wet conditions (Medvigy and Beaulieu, 2012). Such changes already are having profound impacts on the physiological functioning of plants that scale up to influence interactions between plants and other organisms and ecosystems as a whole.
Shifts in climate also may alter selective pressures on plants and, therefore, have the potential to influence evolutionary processes. In some cases, evolutionary responses can occur as rapidly as only a few generations (Ward et al., 2000; Franks et al., 2007; Lau and Lennon, 2012), but there is still much to learn in this area, as pointed out by Franks et al. (2014). Such responses have the potential to alter ecological processes, including species interactions, via ecoevolutionary feedbacks (Shefferson and Salguero-Gómez, 2015). In this seminar review, we discuss processes that can shape plant responses to climate change as well as direct physiological responses to climate change during the recent geologic past as recorded in the fossil record.
Due to rapid climate change, plants have become increasingly exposed to novel environmental conditions that are outside of their physiological limits and beyond the range to which they are adapted (Shaw and Etterson, 2012). Plant migration may not keep pace with the unprecedented rate of current climate change (Loarie et al., 2009); therefore, rapid evolutionary responses may be the major process by which plants persist in the future (Franks et al., 2007; Alberto et al., 2013). In addition, although plants may have evolved physiological plasticity that produces a fitness advantage in novel environments, climate change may be so extreme as to push plants beyond tolerance ranges even in the most plastic of genotypes (Anderson et al., 2012).
Understanding the potential for evolutionary responses at the physiological level is a key challenge that must be met in order to improve predictions of plant response to climate change. A focus on physiology is critical because these processes scale from individual to ecosystem levels. For example, CO2 rise and climate change that alter photosynthetic rates may shift plant growth rates, overall productivity, and resource use (Ainsworth and Rogers, 2007; Norby and Donald, 2011; Medeiros and Ward, 2013). Other physiological responses to altered climate include increasing leaf sugars with elevated CO2, which may influence major life history traits such as flowering time and fitness via sugar-sensing mechanisms (Wahl et al., 2013). At higher scales, shifts in source/sink relationships of photosynthate can influence seedling survival, whole-plant growth, and competitive ability within the broader plant community, symbiotic interactions, and fitness. Therefore, the potential for physiological functioning to evolve in response to climate change will be a key indicator of plant resiliency (or lack thereof) in future environments.
Defining physiological components that correlate with fitness, particularly in newly emerging environments, will allow us to identify candidate processes that may be under strong selection in future environments and to predict the composition and functioning of future plant populations and communities (Kimball et al., 2012).
Figure 1: A, Abiotic conditions directly affect plant physiological traits. Also, the probability that a given species persists with climate change (both in the past and future) is influenced by the degree of phenotypic plasticity in these traits, the ability of populations to migrate and track environmental conditions in space, and the potential for populations to evolve traits that are adaptive in the novel environment. Interactions between plants and other organisms also affect plant physiology, the strength of selection on plant traits, and the probability of persistence. Climate change alters species interactions via direct effects on plant antagonists and mutualists and via changes in plant traits that influence the dynamics of these interactions.
B, Following an environmental perturbation (vertical dashed line), plant populations with low genetic and/or phenotypic variability are unlikely to persist (red line). Phenotypic plasticity can facilitate the tolerance of environmental change over the short term (blue line). Migration to a more favorable environment and/or the evolution of adaptive traits (including greater plasticity) can facilitate long-term responses to environmental change (orange line) (Kimball et al., 2012).