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Can plant genomics help us preserve Britain's biodiversity?

The UK government’s new biodiversity net gain scheme means that all new building projects in the UK must achieve a 10% net gain in biodiversity or habitat. However, as Professor of Plant Genetics Andrew Leitch explains, we need to protect and preserve biodiversity on a much larger scale.

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In order to do that for plants, we need to understand what's affecting them today, and what the future of plant life might look like.

That’s what PhD student Marie Henniges, in collaboration with my team, is aiming to answer with her AI-powered research into plant biology. They’ve found key differences in the genome size between native and alien plant life that may hold the key to understand future biodiversity.

Marie's computer analysable database , which took over two years to assemble and integrated data from leading botanists across the UK, comprises 2,337 species of plants. It combines existing data on functional traits and species distribution with previously unpublished genome sizes and life-form assessments, to explore how the distribution of native and alien plants has changed across the UK.

Luckily, the distribution of plants across Britain and Ireland has been documented and studied for centuries. However, research findings were spread across multiple resources with no standardised way to quantify taxonomic, ecological, and genetic information. This limited the usefulness of the knowledge, making it harder to draw conclusions or develop insight. The assembly into a single database has changed that.

Alongside my team, Henniges organised data into decadal time slices going back around 50 years. The assembly of species data on chromosome numbers, functional traits, species distribution, hybrid propensity, alien vs native status and more, now allows researchers to analyse and categorise the past distribution of plants across the UK. We can then use AI modelling tools to predict how plant distribution might change in the future as climate change and other man-made impacts influence our plant species. 

Understanding plant genomes

Plants have different amounts of DNA in each cell, which impacts the size of their genomes. The size differences are enormous, so that if you unwind the DNA from each cell of a plant with a small genome, it would measure just a few centimetre, whilst if you unwound the DNA for a species with a big genome it would measure the same as the hight of the tower that houses Big Ben in the House of Parliament. This amount of DNA is in every cell, and each tissue, including each leaf, has tens of thousands of cells. The differnece in the amount of DNA between species impacts many aspects of the plants physiology and genetics, affecting where and how a plant can live.

Researchers have for a long time explored the role of genome size in a plant’s ecological preferences, but most studies were over a small spatial scale, meaning they looked at micro-ecosystems and didn’t explore the impact on wider plant life over decades. Henniges’ data modelling tools help us to look at the big picture - the landscape scale of the impacts of environmental variables and genome size affect plant distribution changes across UK.

How are we impacting plants?

Hennige’s database revealed that around 50% of the plants in Britain and Ireland have arrived since the 16th century. The data has shown that these alien species frequently have smaller genomes and are more responsive to climate change than our native species, and so are responding in different ways to our native flora.

Her data base has also revealed that fertilisers are favouring plants with larger genomes, improving their competitive advantage versus other plants. Henniges work suggests that over a long time period, some plant species will face too increased competition generated by environmental change such that have increased risk of dying out, whilst others will do well and expand in their range. Amongst the latter are likely to a high proportion of alien species.

The team’s use of AI tools to aggregate and analyse Hennige’s database will help us to predict the future of our flora. It will help us understand what impacts nutrient and water-use efficiency in plants, photosynthesis, and species responses to climate change and other ecological challenges.

Looking to a protected future

Armed with new insights, researchers and conservations will be able to move towards mitigation and prevention methods that ensure the UK’s biodiversity is protected.  We anticipate that this will help us develop robust finance mechanisms that aim to conserve and generate markets in biodiversity (such as biodiversity credits) which Britain and many other countries of the world are pledged to form. Indeed finance institutions (e.g. banks insurance companies) across the globe, as well as land agents, NGOs and more are all looking at mechanisms to integrate biodiversity and finance, and the work presented here has led me and my colleagues into NERC’s ‘Integrating biodiversity and finance’ programme which aims to lead the UK and beyond into a biodiverse rich future.

Over the next few years, I will be working with Henniges and our collaborator, Dr Ilia Leitch at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to further develop these insights in partnership with Dr Silvia Liverani from the School of Mathematical Sciences. We are working towards a biodiversity rich future, which is strongly associated with improved food security, environment stability and robustness, reduced flooding, improved countryside stewardship and enhanced mental health and wellbeing.

Learn more about how we’re understanding and protecting our biodiversity here.

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