Urbanization driving plants’ evolution
When many of us see the common weedy plant White Clover, we might think of lawn maintenance, honey production, or perhaps the luck of the Irish. But a group of scientists from around the globe, including a researcher from Mount Allison University, have recently published a study on the evolution of this mighty plant in urban settings.
Dr. Emily Austen, Assistant Professor of Biology at Mount Allison University, was one of nearly 300 researchers globally to contribute to the project likely the largest ever collaborative effort in evolutionary biology. The article, Global urbanization drives adaptation in the plant white clover, was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal, Science.
“White clover has a built-in defence mechanism, it produces hydrogen cyanide, which enables it to protect itself against little herbivores like caterpillars or other insects,” explains Austen. “But there’s a trade-off for the plant to put this mechanism to use, it takes a lot of energy and resources. We collected clover samples from cities around the world to see if those in urban areas reacted differently from plants in the rural areas surrounding cities.”
The international, multi-year study examined the way that life in a city setting can impose natural selection on the non-human organisms in these areas. Specifically, the international team, known as GLUE (Global Urban Evolution), were studying how the biochemistry of White Clover changes depending on whether it is found in a city or a surrounding rural area.
Austen collected hundreds of White Clover samples in the Moncton area in the summer of 2018. She then collaborated with Shad Mount Allison a national STEM-focused program for Grade 10 and 11 students, hosted at university campuses across Canada to help analyze the samples.