UTM Ph.D. student Lucas Albano is researching the ability of plants to adapt to changing climates. He is specifically testing the white clover’s ability to adapt to water shortage and rising temperatures.
Albano is a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Dr. Marc Johnson’s Evolutionary Ecology lab. He is also an undergraduate TA in the Department of Biology.
Albano says that white clovers are an ideal specimen to study “a global phenomenon like climate change since “[white clover] grows everywhere apart from deserts [and is] very widely distributed across the globe.”
In his current experiment—which Albano is conducting at the UTM greenhouse—he is studying the effects of water shortage on white clover. Albano’s experiment will determine whether the plants which receive low water are able to survive in times of drought, and ultimately, whether they have the ability to adapt to water shortages.
“Essentially, there are 640 plants in the experiment and half have to get high water and half have to get low water,” explains Albano. “There is a four-fold difference between the high and low [meaning] the high plants receive four times as much water as the low plants.”
Albano expands on the watering process: “Rather than giving [specified] amounts of water, I water them for a specific amount of time per day. No matter what that time is, the wet ones are also going to be watered as much as the low ones.”
To facilitate the irrigation process, Albano developed an automated watering system. “I decided that I would build this system that was very difficult to build because by the end of it, I just [had] to go in and click a button once a day. [The watering system] does everything for you.”
Albano adds that half of the plants receiving high water and half of the plants receiving low water also receive nutrient pellets.
The temperature of the greenhouse is also controlled in the experiment. “The temperature right now is mimicking that of the second two weeks of August. When we began the experiment, the temperature matched the beginning of early June. [We’ve been adjusting it] progressively to match the seasons,” describes Albano. The experiment will last two months in duration.
Albano uses bumblebees to pollinate the plants and measure the seed output. “You can’t measure the seed output without measuring the pollination. We decided that we would order cardboard boxes [filled with] bees and have them do the work for us.”
Albano has also planned a second experiment using white clovers to determine the plant’s ability to adapt to a change in climate. Albano will conduct a “common garden experiment” which is an experiment where “you take plants from all over the world and grow them in one place.”
Albano drove over one thousand miles across North America, from Louisiana to North Bay, to collect white clover samples for his upcoming experiment. All of the sample plants will be planted in a garden in Newmarket, Ontario.
Albano says, “Typically what you’d expect is the plants from Newmarket would do the best. You expect the plants from where the [common] garden is located to do the best [because they would be] highly adapted to the climate in that region.” Albano calls this a “home field advantage.”
The regional diversity of the white clover samples is essential to this experiment. “We can test the climate change aspect of things by using the plants that have been taken from an area south of the garden to [determine] if it’s the same temperature here [in Southern Ontario] that those plants are adapted to.”
Albano hypothesizes that “if the plants south of the common garden are doing better than the local plants, that means that the climate is changing faster here than it is in the south because those plants are more successful.”
Albano adds, “If the results come out that the home-field advantage exists, then we can kind of infer that plants can adapt very quickly to climate change. We start to lose biodiversity due to climate change because plants cannot adapt fast enough.”
“We can build a whole story around what [impacts of climate change] plants are adapting to.”