Brain Food: The One Gene Difference

Nov 14, 2013

Some scientists predict the Southwest will continue on its warming trend. NAU biology professor Tom Whitham says the rise in temperatures is happening so fast - 3 degrees in the last 60 years - that many plants are not able to adapt and survive.

NAU biology professor Tom Whitham

Whitham says, "in 2002, we had a record drought that was considered the worst in at least 100 years, perhaps even 500 years. So, many trees died during that time period, and we found that within, say, 50 miles of Flagstaff nearly 45% of all the pinon pines died in a single year."

Whitham says a die off of this size is an indication something big is happening. He says every species, including plants, has a genetic variation. Sometimes it makes the plant stronger, sometimes it makes it more susceptible to extinction. So, he's studying how one or a few genes can make that difference. He's planting experimental gardens with trees that have adapted to various conditions to see if they can survive even greater environmental change.

"We can identify the genotypes and populations that will do best under tomorrow's climate," Whitham says. "If the environment changes, then what is locally adapted will become locally maladapted. And so that's why climate change is such a game changer."

Whitham says taking this genetic approach may mean that some of Arizona's iconic features - the ponderosas, the pinon pines, the Saguaros - won't necessarily disappear from the landscape.