Plants are the natural allies of humans in the fight against climate change. They absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and store it as biomass, reducing the greenhouse effect. However, new research suggests that plants may not be as reliable as we thought, as they also release more CO2 through respiration than previously estimated.
One study involving international collaborators found that plant respiration, the process by which plants release CO2 back into the atmosphere, increases significantly with global warming. This means that the positive contribution of plants in lowering the concentration of greenhouse gases may decline in the future as they begin to breathe more as the world heats up.
On the other hand, another study from Trinity College Dublin suggests that plants may be able to adjust to rising temperatures and absorb 20 per cent more CO2 than predicted by the end of the century. This research paints an ‘uncharacteristically upbeat picture for the planet’ after finding that models had failed to take into account the ability of plants to acclimate to changing conditions.
The researchers discovered that plants can inherit traits from their parents that help them cope with stress, such as high heat or drought. This is done through a mechanism called DNA methylation, which allows plants to “mark” their DNA without changing the code itself, providing information for future generations on how to “read” that DNA.
With this knowledge, scientists can potentially enhance the resilience of plants to climate change by exposing them to stressful conditions and collecting their seeds. For example, a major crop like corn could be grown in extreme heat, at the brink of what it can survive, and the seed collected from that corn would result in a highly heat-resistant corn crop that could be grown in a location that is experiencing rising temperatures.
This new research opens the door for more innovation and experimentation in the field of plant biology and ecology, as well as providing hope for the future of the planet. However, it also warns that plants alone cannot solve the problem of climate change, and that humans need to take action to reduce their emissions and protect the environment.
The research suggests that plants may be able to absorb more CO2 than previously expected, but also release more CO2 through respiration as the world warms up. This highlights the importance of continued research and innovation in this field to equip plants with the tools they need to adapt to the changing climate.
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