Big Picture: Genes with the Wind

A map of global wind currents
Image by Matthew Kling

Forests’ ability to adapt to climate change may depend, in part, on the eddies and swirls of global wind currents. New research shows how wind currents shape the genetic diversity of entire forests, offering insight into how well different tree populations might adapt to a changing climate. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dean David Ackerly and integrative biology postdoctoral researcher Matthew Kling compared wind patterns with genetic data from forests around the world. They found significant correlations between wind speed and direction and forests’ genetic diversity, and for the first time, demonstrated how wind influences forest genetic composition and diversity at a landscape scale.

In this image, the black arrows and white paths represent global prevailing wind directions, and the colored dots represent the locations of the tree populations where the researchers analyzed genetic data. “As the world warms, many plants and animals will need to move to places with suitable habitat to survive,” said Ackerly. “Wind dispersal has a particularly interesting connection to climate change, because wind can either push the genes or organisms toward more suitable habitat, or in the opposite direction.”

— Kara Manke