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This project is supported by funding from National Science Foundation award DEB-1142764.

Project Baseline: A Seedbank to Study Plant Evolution

Project Baseline is a multi-university collaboration that aims to create a unique seed bank used to study plant evolution in response to environmental change.

Over the anticipated 50-year lifetime of this project, seeds will be made available to researchers on a schedule of 5-10 year intervals to study evolutionary change through direct comparison of plants grown from archived materials with individuals newly sampled from nature.

Environmental change is altering the selective pressures that influence species survival and reproduction.

Plant species are already responding to climate change, as evidenced by earlier budburst, flowering, and arrival of insect and bird pollinators. However, in only a few cases can we distinguish between phenotypic responses to longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures (plasticity) and genetically based evolutionary change in response to altered patterns of natural selection.

We have little information on one of the most basic parameters of ecological genetics: the rate of evolution in the wild.

The resurrection approach is used to study evolution

In a few cases, direct demonstration of the nature of contemporary change in wild populations has been possible because propagules (e.g., stored seeds, seeds preserved in tundra soils, or eggs in lake sediments) have been fortuitously available in a condition to be revived and grown side-by-side with their contemporary descendants. This "resurrection approach" has permitted phenotypic and genetic comparison of populations representing different time periods.

Establishment of a living genome bank

We are initiating a national effort to systematically collect, preserve and archive seeds to be made available to future biologists for studies of evolutionary responses to anthropogenic and natural changes in the environment over the coming decades. With this valuable resource secured, biologists will be able to grow genetically representative samples of past populations contemporaneously with modern samples, applying both long-established and recently developed genetic approaches, as well as ones yet to be developed, to dissect the architecture of genetic change.

Evolutionary questions that can be addressed using this collection

  • To what extent are differences in mating system, life history, dispersal syndrome or ploidy associated with rates of evolutionary change?
  • How do reproductive, physiological, or phenological traits evolve in the context of changes in growing season parameters?
  • How does genomic variation evolve within and among populations?
  • What factors are most strongly associated with declines in population performance, abundance and fitness?

See the Background link for a more extensive discussion of evolutionary hypotheses.

How is Project Baseline unique?

Its scientific goals and scope distinguish Project Baseline from other seed banking efforts. Excellent seed banks have been established with the primary goals of conservation, restoration, and preservation of plant resources. Because the focus of this project is to test evolutionary predictions, our collection efforts concentrate on well-studied genera. Within these groups, we identify closely related taxa representing contrasting ecological attributes and life histories, for example, related taxa differing in aspects of pollination biology. Our collections encompass grasses, legumes, forbs, trees, native and invasive species.

Project Baseline seed collections will represent populations of target species spanning their geographic ranges, thereby capturing genetic variation both among and within populations. The collections are particularly valuable because they are designed to capture variation across latitudinal, longitudinal, and elevational gradients for diverse taxa from different habitats. These collections are accessible to future researchers who are interested in testing predictions in evolutionary biology.

Why we need you

As researchers or observers of your local environment, you can help us by identifying candidate species and collection sites that will serve as long-term sources of genetic material for this study. We welcome contributions and advice from scientists who wish to have their study species included in the collection, submit seeds for archiving, or have suggestions for improving our methods.

If you wish to propose a species that meets the criteria described on the Protocols page, please submit your suggestion.

More information about Project Baseline collaborators.