Pines and Viroids: On The Deep Past And Imminent Future of Life

Recently I’ve been writing a fair amount about plants–what they can tell us about the deep history of life, as well as what life will be like for them in the near future.

Tomatoes, dahlias, and many other cultivated plants can fall victim to a strange infection. The pathogen is not a fungus or a bacterium or even a virus. Instead, it’s a naked snippet of genes known as a viroid. A team of scientists is convinced that viroids are relics of the earliest stages of life on Earth, a form of life that evolved before the dawn of DNA. For the rest of the story, see my column in the New York Times.

Viroids will still be a fact of life for plants in the next century–but so will a rapid shift in the climate. What will happen to plants when the temperature in their current range changes? Will they be able to colonize places further from the equator where they can still thrive? Or will they be unable to get there fast enough? In another piece for the New York Times, I investigate the question by looking at one plant in particular, the magnificent whitebark pine. Check it out.

3 thoughts on “Pines and Viroids: On The Deep Past And Imminent Future of Life

  1. The article focuses on plants. Is there any reason to believe that viroids are limited to infecting plants?

    [CZ: That’s certainly possible. Why that would be, no one is sure.]

  2. I could give a guess as to why viroids infect plants and not other kinds of cells. It might be b/c they do not code for proteins and so they have no means to attach to and get through a plasma membrane. Plants have special cytoplasmic channels between their cells (plasmodesmata), and I suppose viroid RNA might just go from cell to cell thru those.

  3. I’m consistently amused by those who continue to predict ‘a rapid shift in climate’ even though similar IPCC predictions of same have failed to come to pass.

    Climate changes – always has, always will. There is irrefutable proof that it has happened rapidly in the past with no assistance from humans. This proof also shows that it’s changed faster than anything we’ve experienced or are likely to experience any time soon. When climate changes, species either adapt, or they don’t. Extinction is the rule, not the exception. There are those who claim, falsely, we’re experiencing an unusually high extinction rate at present. Though this myth is supported by falsely characterizing organisms with inconsequential differences, which have forced themselves to the brink of extinction, as different species when they really are not.

    [CZ: Those who warn that we’re experiencing an unusually high extinction rate at present are, in fact, the scientists who have spent their careers studying extinction rates. (For example, this study.) If you have peer-reviewed evidence that the extinction rate is a myth, provide us with the link. From what I know of the research, what you’re saying is false.]

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