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Environ Int. 2003 Jun;29(2-3):171-80.

The long-term effects of carbon dioxide on natural systems: issues and research needs.

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  • 1Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Cornell University, 14853, Ithaca, NY, USA.


Research on the responses of plants to increasing levels of carbon dioxide has largely assessed physiological, phenotypic, and community-level effects. Little attention has been directed to investigating the possibility that escalating levels of carbon dioxide may serve as a selection pressure altering the genetic diversity of plant populations. Plant populations exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals or ozone have been shown to undergo selection, and it is reasonable to consider that populations experiencing long-term exposure to escalating levels of carbon dioxide may show similar responses. Selection of this nature could be particularly significant because of the global extent of the effect. Genetic selection occurs when plants are subject to an agent of selection and three conditions for a property responsive to the agent are satisfied at the population level. In the population, variation must exist in the property, part of the variation must be genetically controlled, and variation in the property must affect reproductive fitness. If these conditions are satisfied, the frequency distribution of the property, and the gene frequency associated with it, will change over time in response to the agent of selection. Research on the selection pressure effects of carbon dioxide involves assessments that integrate across temporal, spatial, and biological scales, and embrace variation in the environment and genetics. To be effective, the research will have to adopt approaches that have not been commonly employed in previous air quality studies. The questions posed are biologically complex, and new research approaches and methods are required to answer them. Some of the new approaches that can be used to assess changes in gene frequency include use of natural carbon dioxide gradients, model plant systems, molecular markers, and DNA microarray technology.

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