Archive for December, 2011

Fire drive plant evolution

December 7th, 2011 No comments

Considering fire as evolutionary pressure driving evolution has traditional been neglected, and only now is becoming a topic of research [1-3]. The role of fire as an evolutionary pressure can be elucidated using both macro- and micro-evolutionary approaches. While the micro-evolutionary approach searches for trait divergences in different current selective environments, the macro-evolutionary approach uses dated phylogenies to trace the evolution of traits over long time scales (My). In a previous post [3] we mentioned an example of the macro-evolutionary approach. In a recent paper, S. Goméz-Gonzalez and collaborators [5] provided, for the first time, a clear example of the micro-evolutionary approach to demonstrate natural selection driven by fire.  They presented compelling evidence that the novel anthropogenic fires affecting the Chilean matorral shaped seed traits on a native annual plants (Helenium aromaticum). By studying populations growing on sites with different recent fire histories, they showed that increasing fire frequency selects for increasing seed pubescence (directional selection): a trait that was proven to be heritable and that increased fitness under experimental heat treatments. This paper was also presented in a special session at the MEDECOS Conference [3].

Figure: Habitat of Helenium aromaticum in central Chile [5]

[1] Pausas J.G. & Keeley J.E. 2009. A Burning Story: The role of fire in the history of life. BioScience 59: 593-601. [doipdfpost]

Keeley J.E., Pausas J.G., Rundel P.W., Bond W.J., Bradstock R.A. 2011. Fire as an evolutionary pressure shaping plant traits. Trends in Plant Science 16: 406-411 [doitrends |pdf]

[3] Pausas, J. G. and D. W. Schwilk. 2012. Fire and plant evolution. New Phytologist 193: [pdf]

[4] Pausas J.G. 2011. Australia born to burn – phylogenetic evidences. URL:, 18/03/2011

[5] Gómez-González S, Torres-Díaz C, Bustos-Schindler C, Gianoli E, 2011. Anthropogenic fire drives the evolution of seed traits. PNAS 108: 18743-18747. [doi]

Smoke-stimulated germination

December 2nd, 2011 No comments

It is know that the germination of some species from Mediterranean fire-prone ecosystems is triggered by combustion chemicals which appear in the smoke and the charred wood (for simplicity, we use the term “smoke-stimulate germination”). This smoke-stimulated germination is now known from many post-fire recruiting species in South Africa, Australia, California and the Mediterranean Basin [e.g., 1-4]. Certain nitrogen oxides (NOx) induce germination in a limited number post-fire species [3], but this does not apply to most the smoke-stimulated species. In 2004 two independent studies isolated the active organic compound from the smoke that stimulates germination [5,6]: butanolide (also named karrikinolide). Because this compound is a derived from the combustion of cellulose it was thought to be universal germination cue in all smoke-stimulated plants. However, the fact that smoke-induced germination appears in very distant regions and in species from very different lineages, suggest that unrelated species could had evolve mechanisms that are triggered by different components from the smoke [7]. Later it was demonstrated that some species with smoke-stimulated germination did not responded to butanolide, supporting the idea that could be multiple mechanisms to stimulate germination by smoke [8]. A recent paper has found a new smoke-stimulation mechanism from which burning plant material produces cyanide that stimulate the germination of some species [9]. Little by little we are learning on the role of fire in plant ecology and evolution [7, 10].

Figure:  Germination percentage (mean+s.e.) in relation to time since sowing (days) for Cistus monspeliensis after different heat treatments (A), and for Lavandula stoechas after different smoke treatments (B). From Moreira et al. (2010) [4]

[1] Brown, N. A. C. 1993. Promotion of germination of fynbos seeds by plant-derived smoke. New Phytologist 123:575-584.

[2] Dixon, K. W., S. Roche, and J. S. Pate. 1995. The promotive effect of smoke derived from burnt native vegetation on seed germination of Western Australian plants. Oecologia 101:185-192.

[3] Keeley, J. E. and C. J. Fotheringham. 2000. Role of fire in regeneration from seeds. Pages 311-330 in M. Fenner, editor. Seeds: The ecology of regeneration in plant communities. CAB International, Wallingford, UK.

[4] Moreira, B., J. Tormo, E. Estrelles, and J. G. Pausas. 2010. Disentangling the role of heat and smoke as germination cues in Mediterranean Basin flora. Annals of Botany 105:627-635. [doi | pdf | post]

[5] Van Staden, J., A. Jäger, M. Light, and B. Burger. 2004. Isolation of the major germination cue from plant-derived smoke. South African Journal of Botany 70:654-659.

[6] Flematti, G. R., E. L. Ghisalberti, K. W. Dixon, and R. D. Trengove. 2004. A compound from smoke that promotes seed germination. Science 305:977.

[7] Pausas, J. G. and J. E. Keeley. 2009. A burning story: The role of fire in the history of life. Bioscience 59:593-601. [doi | pdf | post]

[8] Downes, K. S., B. B. Lamont, M. E. Light, and J. van Staden. 2010. The fire ephemeral Tersonia cyathiflora (Gyrostemonaceae) germinates in response to smoke but not the butenolide 3-methyl-2H-furol[2,3-c]pyran-2-one. Annals of Botany 106:381-384.

[9] Flematti, G. R., D. J. Merritt, M. J. Piggott, R. D. Trengove, S. M. Smith, K. W. Dixon, and E. L. Ghisalberti. 2011. Burning vegetation produces cyanohydrins that liberate cyanide and stimulate seed germination. Nature Comm. 2:360.

[10] Keeley, J. E., J. G. Pausas, P. W. Rundel, W. J. Bond, and R. A. Bradstock. 2011. Fire as an evolutionary pressure shaping plant traits. Trends in Plant Science 16:406-411. [doi | pdf | post]