Back to the future - Seed banks as a tool to investigate recent adaptation to climate change


Robert Rauschkolb, Niek Scheepens (host), Andreas Ensslin


Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU), Stiftung Landesbank Baden-Württemberg


April 2018 - March 2021

In short

We use the resurrection approach to compare populations of 60 plant species from three regions (continental Europe, European Alps, Mediterranean region) from a few decades ago with the current situation to infer whether recent climate change caused rapid evolutionary changes.

Project description

Plant populations have to cope with various environmental changes over time, and climate change is one of the strongest impacts. In the future, climatic changes are likely to become even stronger. But climate change has already advanced rapidly over the last few decades, so it is interesting to investigate how plants have adapted to these past changes. There are lots of studies focusing on adaptations due to manipulated conditions in greenhouse experiments but till this day only little is known about whether plants have already adapted. To investigate this, we aim to compare seed material from five European seedbanks with recollected material from the original populations today. The accessions we use in this project are older than 20 years and the original location is known exactly. In total we include 60 accessions from three different European biogeographic regions (continental Europe, European Alps and the Mediterranean) in a greenhouse experiment where we compare plants germinated from the seed bank seeds and from the recollected seeds. Here we focus on differences in phenology and morphological traits. After this first experiment we use seeds from the first generation to set up a second experiment with 12 species in which we use a half-sib design in order to get a deeper insight into underlying genetic features of the observed morphological differences by using quantitative genetics. In this second experiment we will allo apply region-specific treatments (temperature, drought, competition) in order to investigate evolution in plant phenotypic responses.

These two experiments may provide information about general evolutive changes in the European flora which have already occurred over the last decades. Furthermore as we use different species from different functional groups and different regions we can try to generalise about plant responses and predict which species may be able to adapt to future climate changes. This knowledge can be used for longtime strategies in agriculture, forestry and restoration projects.

The resurrection approach that we apply is an innovative way to use stored seed material for research projects focusing on rapid evolution and the potential of plant populations to adapt to changing conditions.

Additional collaborators

Prof. Dr. Oliver Bossdorf (University of Tübingen), Dr. Elke Zippel (Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem), Dr. Nikolai Friesen (Loki Schmidt-Genbank für Wildpflanzen, Osnabrück), Dr. Sandrine Godefroid (Seed bank of the Botanic Garden Meise), Noémie Fort (Banque de semences du Conservatoire Botanique National Alpin, Gap), Lara Dixon (Banque de semences du Conservatoire Botanique National Méditerranéen de Porquerolles, Hyères)


Rauschkolb R, Henres L, Lou C, Godefroid S, Dixon L, Durka W, Bossdorf O, Ensslin A, Scheepens JF (2021) Historical comparisons show evolutionary changes in drought responses in European plant species after two decades of climate change. Basic and Applied Ecology accepted.