Learning from History: Genetics of Adaptation

When environments change, organisms may directly alter their behavior, morphology, physiology, or development in response to those environmental changes (termed “plasticity”), or they may disperse to an environment more conducive to their survival and reproduction. If organisms lack such plasticity or mobility, the populations must adapt. Given the current impact of humans on our environment, a major question is whether plants and animals can adapt quickly enough to keep up with the rate of environmental change. History may provide us insight to the ability of humans, animals, and plants to adapt rapidly to environmental change. Drs. Thomas Mitchell-Olds, John Willis, Mark Rausher, Kathleen Donohue, and Craig Lowe all study how organisms have adapted to diverse environmental challenges in the past, the genetic basis of those adaptations, and how genetic variants that exist in natural populations may enable populations to adapt in the future. Natural populations exhibit important adaptations to local environmental factors such predators or herbivores, chemical composition of soils, local seasonality or climate, and local plant and animal communities. Using genomic methods to identify genes involved in these adaptations, the molecular and ecological processes that have allowed organisms to persist and diversify can be identified. Such knowledge provides insight into how changes in the physical and biotic environment that organisms inhabit interact with genes to alter the present distribution and persistence of species, and how they may continue to do so in the future.

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