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Posted: 18 December 2006

€1.75m grant to investigate how plants react to global warming

Each and every biological species faces extinction at some point in time. It is estimated that 99% of all the species that once inhabited the earth are now extinct. Even the once dominant dinosaurs, and almost 50% of the other species living at the time, surrendered to a mass-extinction event which occurred some 65 million years ago.

According to Raup and Sepkoski (1982), the fossils record shows that the Earth’s history has been punctuated by five mass extinction events: End Ordovician (488 million years ago); Late Devonian (360 million years ago); End Permian (251 million years ago); End Triassic (200 million years ago) and End Cretaceous (65 million years ago).

Now, it is widely believed that we are facing a sixth mass extinction event as a result of the current rates of anthropomorphic (man-made) global warming.

Researchers at the UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science have received a €1.75 million Marie Curie Excellence Grant from the European Commission to investigate how this predicted mass extinction event will influence our natural ecosystems.

Dr Jennifer McElwain at the Constable Pynt airbase
Dr Jennifer McElwain at the Constable Pynt airbase

By studying the responses of plant biodiversity to a natural global warming event which occurred 200 million years ago, the researchers aim to understand how plants are likely to respond to the future effects of global warming. The findings will be used to inform conservation policy.

Detail of fossil leaf from Greenland (magnified 400 times)
A 200 million year old leaf of a plant called Sphenobaiera-related to Ginkgo. The image shows a part and counterpart of the fossil leaf- on one side there is an impression of the leaf (like a handprint) on the other side is a fossil leaf which has been mostly turned to coal but can be studied under the microscope to reveal very fine detail of the leaf surface including hairs and cells and stomata. Photo credit. Mark Widhalm.

“We want to predict extinction proneness. To identify the type of ecology that is going to be more prone to extinction over the next one hundred years” says Dr Jennifer McElwain, who is leading the research.

“We are testing the hypothesis that fairly subtle changes in plant ecology and diversity contributed to a mass extinction of land animals which existed in the Triassic period,” continues Dr McElwain.

The research team will conduct experiments on ‘living fossil plants’ grown in simulated conditions to those which existed during the ‘dawn of the dinosaurs,’ 200 million years ago. A new state-of-the-art plant growth room facility will be constructed at Belfield to provide the required environment.

“This research will place Ireland and the EU as a hub for innovation and excellence in the biological study of ancient vegetation and ecosystems” says Professor Tom Bolger, Head of the UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science.

This is the first time that a grant of this kind has been awarded to the Life Sciences in Ireland.

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