A study led by scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory, which focuses on epigenetics in European common marsh orchids, has revealed that some plants may be able to adapt more quickly to environmental change than previously thought. The new study, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, brings new hope to plant conservation.
Epigenetics comprises hidden influences upon gene functions that occur without a change in the DNA sequence, but are potentially inheritable, and it is a new field of research that is reshaping the way scientists look at the living world. This new evidence that environmental effects on gene activity can be ‘remembered’ is hugely significant. In the modern interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, scientists previously thought that genetic mutations (permanent changes in DNA sequence) were the only source of new traits that could be handed down from generation to generation, causing changes to the way species react to their environment.
This process of adaptation can take hundreds of years and is almost certainly too slow for plants to adapt to rapid climate change.
In this cutting-edge study on a group of marsh orchids, Kew scientists have found that epigenetic variation can significantly influence the adaptive potential of an individual species. In turn, this affects the evolutionary potential of a species at a much quicker rate than was previously thought. This study focused on three recently formed species of delicate purple European marsh-orchids (Dactylorhiza) of hybrid origin, two of them occurring in the UK. Despite having a highly similar genetic heritage, the three orchids differ considerably in ecological requirements, morphology, physical characteristics and distribution.