(CN) — Just how plants adapt to higher altitudes has been something of a mystery. But a paper published Wednesday in Nature argues that plants are able to “sense” atmospheric oxygen levels around them, citing new research to back up the claim.
“For life at high altitude, it was previously considered that plants need to adapt to many variables, including high UV light and lower temperatures usually present at high altitude,” said professor Michael Holdsworth from the University of Nottingham, who led the study, in a written statement. “This study is the first time that perception of atmospheric oxygen levels has been shown to be a key determinant of altitude adaptation in plants.“
About a quarter of earth’s land surface is mountainous, and those regions contain at least 30% of our plant species diversity. As climate change makes the earth hotter, plants and animals that live and grow in the mountains have been forced to move higher and higher.
There are some fears that as global warming continues to worsen, certain crops like coffee will become more difficult and expensive to grow.
Scientists hope that greater understanding about how plants adapt to higher altitudes, where the air is thinner, may lead to better approaches by farmers.
The team of researchers studied etiolated seedlings of angiosperms — that is, young flowered plants growing with little or no sunlight — living at different altitudes in Nottingham, England and Quito, Ecuador, the second highest capital city in the world.
The scientists were able to “identify how oxygen-sensing controls the pathway of chlorophyll synthesis, permitting plants to match the levels of a key toxic chemical to surrounding oxygen levels.”
Mammals, too, adapt to higher altitudes. But plants do it in a much different way.
The study was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, a UK-based foundation that gives out roughly $125 million every year in research funding, fellowships, scholarships and prizes.