Cells, Genes & Molecules Computational Models Ecosystems Plant Physiology

How will plant communities respond to climate change?

Functional-structural plant modelling is the key to predicting how plant communities will respond to climate change.

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Current ecological models are ill-equipped to predict ecological responses to climate change because they lack the necessary data from conditions that have not yet come to pass.

Dr. Jorad de Vries, postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zürich, calls for the use of evolutionary functional-structural plant modelling (FSPM) to understand the effect of climate change on natural plant communities in a new paper published in in silico Plants.

“Evolutionary FSP modelling is a novel development in the field of 3D modelling that combines two methods that share a focus on emergent model behaviour through a mechanistic description of natural systems but act on very different spatial and temporal scales. FSP models typically simulate a high level of spatial detail, which allows them to accurately simulate mechanisms on the level of individual plant organs such as leaves, while evolutionary models simulate eco-evolutionary dynamics that act over generations. The fusion of these methods and their varying scales is challenging but offers new and exciting opportunities to gain a better understanding of how plant communities may respond to a changing climate, and what factors are the main drivers of those responses,” says de Vries.

De Vries first explains why understanding climate change responses of plant communities requires mechanistic modelling approaches. Current methods focus on plant functional traits, which do not predict the interaction between the abiotic and biotic environments, and therefore ecosystem functions, well. Instead, he argues, the focus should be on the mechanisms that link the functional traits to fitness on the level of individual plants through interactions with their local abiotic and biotic environments. FSP modelling is an excellent tool to accurately simulate the trait-environment interactions that drive climate change responses of individual plants.

De Vries advocates for coupling FSP and evolutionary models, which will allow scaling from individuals to communities through mechanistic simulation of demographic and evolutionary processes. FSP modelling can accommodate trait variation, which can then be subject to selection, gene flow and genetic drift using the evolutionary model.

A visual summary of the processes and scale of evolutionary FSP modelling. The FSP model simulates the morphology, physiology and phenology of individually distinct plants in relation to their (a)biotic environment, which shapes individual vital rates (growth, reproduction and survival). The FSP model is coupled to the evolutionary model through a) one or more heritable parameters (e.g. genes, traits) that serve as input to the FSP model and are subject to selection, gene flow and genetic, and b) the fitness components that are the output of the FSP model and drive selection, gene flow and genetic drift. 

The paper then discusses how evolutionary FSP modelling can help explore the behaviour of complex systems with multidimensional plant phenotypes in multidimensional environments. It then highlights the importance of considering the spatial and temporal dynamics of these multidimensional environments, their effects on selection, and the role of phenotypic plasticity.


Jorad de Vries, Using evolutionary functional–structural plant modelling to understand the effect of climate change on plant communities, in silico Plants, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2021, diab029, https://doi.org/10.1093/insilicoplants/diab029

This manuscript is part of in silico Plant’s Functional Structural Plant Model special issue.

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