With climate change already occurring in many places around the world, how these altered environments will impact the millions of species living in them is unknown. When observing plants in the field, how do you know whether the changes observed are due to the organisms evolving in response to climate change, or are the result of the plants adapting to their environment?
To test this, Project Baseline has frozen over 5 million seeds taken from across the United States and put them in storage. Over the next 50 years, scientists will draw on the collection and grow the resurrected seeds alongside those that have been living out in the wild. It should allow the researchers to then work out whether changes in climate are driving their evolution. This will allow them to answer questions ranging from how fast plants can evolve to how predictable the changes are.
The collection was started in 2012, and after four years now contains samples from over 60 species taken from more than 250 sites from across the mainland United States. Samples were taken specifically from a wide range of environments covering many different plant types, and then shipped to the USDA National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado, where they have been frozen and stored at -18°C (-0.4°F). When the time comes, they will be defrosted and planted alongside their decedents collected from the exact same location, but decades later. This has also meant that the researchers have had to predict which locations they think will have persisted 50 years down the line.
This method, known as the resurrection approach, is not often used in biology. Normally, researchers have to either rely on samples from museum collections or follow and study organisms in real time. This project aims to pave the way for future research, hence why it is called Project Baseline, with many of the researchers not expecting to see the end results. The first withdrawal from the seed bank is pencilled in for 2018, though project leader Julie Etterson hopes that there will be seeds planted by 2020, before her retirement.
The project will also be looking to see if physical differences in the plants relate to the genetic alterations, and hopefully answer questions relating to whether evolution is driven by single, large genetic changes, or multiple smaller ones.