The number and extent of roads will expand dramatically this century. Globally, at least 25 million kilometres of new roads are anticipated by 2050; a 60% increase in the total length of roads over that in 2010. Nine-tenths of all road construction is expected to occur in developing nations, including many regions that sustain exceptional biodiversity and vital ecosystem services. Roads penetrating into wilderness or frontier areas are a major proximate driver of habitat loss and fragmentation, wildfires, overhunting and other environmental degradation, often with irreversible impacts on ecosystems. Unfortunately, much road proliferation is chaotic or poorly planned, and the rate of expansion is so great that it often overwhelms the capacity of environmental planners and managers. Here we present a global scheme for prioritizing road building. This large-scale zoning plan seeks to limit the environmental costs of road expansion while maximizing its benefits for human development, by helping to increase agricultural production, which is an urgent priority given that global food demand could double by mid-century. Our analysis identifies areas with high environmental values where future road building should be avoided if possible, areas where strategic road improvements could promote agricultural development with relatively modest environmental costs, and 'conflict areas' where road building could have sizeable benefits for agriculture but with serious environmental damage. Our plan provides a template for proactively zoning and prioritizing roads during the most explosive era of road expansion in human history.
Forests are major components of the global carbon cycle, providing substantial feedback to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Our ability to understand and predict changes in the forest carbon cycle--particularly net primary productivity and carbon storage--increasingly relies on models that represent biological processes across several scales of biological organization, from tree leaves to forest stands. Yet, despite advances in our understanding of productivity at the scales of leaves and stands, no consensus exists about the nature of productivity at the scale of the individual tree, in part because we lack a broad empirical assessment of whether rates of absolute tree mass growth (and thus carbon accumulation) decrease, remain constant, or increase as trees increase in size and age. Here we present a global analysis of 403 tropical and temperate tree species, showing that for most species mass growth rate increases continuously with tree size. Thus, large, old trees do not act simply as senescent carbon reservoirs but actively fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees; at the extreme, a single big tree can add the same amount of carbon to the forest within a year as is contained in an entire mid-sized tree. The apparent paradoxes of individual tree growth increasing with tree size despite declining leaf-level and stand-level productivity can be explained, respectively, by increases in a tree's total leaf area that outpace declines in productivity per unit of leaf area and, among other factors, age-related reductions in population density. Our results resolve conflicting assumptions about the nature of tree growth, inform efforts to undertand and model forest carbon dynamics, and have additional implications for theories of resource allocation and plant senescence.
Oil palm is the most productive oil-bearing crop. Although it is planted on only 5% of the total world vegetable oil acreage, palm oil accounts for 33% of vegetable oil and 45% of edible oil worldwide, but increased cultivation competes with dwindling rainforest reserves. We report the 1.8-gigabase (Gb) genome sequence of the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, the predominant source of worldwide oil production. A total of 1.535 Gb of assembled sequence and transcriptome data from 30 tissue types were used to predict at least 34,802 genes, including oil biosynthesis genes and homologues of WRINKLED1 (WRI1), and other transcriptional regulators, which are highly expressed in the kernel. We also report the draft sequence of the South American oil palm Elaeis oleifera, which has the same number of chromosomes (2n = 32) and produces fertile interspecific hybrids with E. guineensis but seems to have diverged in the New World. Segmental duplications of chromosome arms define the palaeotetraploid origin of palm trees. The oil palm sequence enables the discovery of genes for important traits as well as somaclonal epigenetic alterations that restrict the use of clones in commercial plantings, and should therefore help to achieve sustainability for biofuels and edible oils, reducing the rainforest footprint of this tropical plantation crop.
A key event in the domestication and breeding of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis was loss of the thick coconut-like shell surrounding the kernel. Modern E. guineensis has three fruit forms, dura (thick-shelled), pisifera (shell-less) and tenera (thin-shelled), a hybrid between dura and pisifera. The pisifera palm is usually female-sterile. The tenera palm yields far more oil than dura, and is the basis for commercial palm oil production in all of southeast Asia. Here we describe the mapping and identification of the SHELL gene responsible for the different fruit forms. Using homozygosity mapping by sequencing, we found two independent mutations in the DNA-binding domain of a homologue of the MADS-box gene SEEDSTICK (STK, also known as AGAMOUS-LIKE 11), which controls ovule identity and seed development in Arabidopsis. The SHELL gene is responsible for the tenera phenotype in both cultivated and wild palms from sub-Saharan Africa, and our findings provide a genetic explanation for the single gene hybrid vigour (or heterosis) attributed to SHELL, via heterodimerization. This gene mutation explains the single most important economic trait in oil palm, and has implications for the competing interests of global edible oil production, biofuels and rainforest conservation.
The recurrent patterns in the commonness and rarity of species in ecological communities--the relative species abundance--have puzzled ecologists for more than half a century. Here we show that the framework of the current neutral theory in ecology can easily be generalized to incorporate symmetric density dependence. We can calculate precisely the strength of the rare-species advantage that is needed to explain a given RSA distribution. Previously, we demonstrated that a mechanism of dispersal limitation also fits RSA data well. Here we compare fits of the dispersal and density-dependence mechanisms for empirical RSA data on tree species in six New and Old World tropical forests and show that both mechanisms offer sufficient and independent explanations. We suggest that RSA data cannot by themselves be used to discriminate among these explanations of RSA patterns--empirical studies will be required to determine whether RSA patterns are due to one or the other mechanism, or to some combination of both.
Somaclonal variation arises in plants and animals when differentiated somatic cells are induced into a pluripotent state, but the resulting clones differ from each other and from their parents. In agriculture, somaclonal variation has hindered the micropropagation of elite hybrids and genetically modified crops, but the mechanism responsible remains unknown. The oil palm fruit 'mantled' abnormality is a somaclonal variant arising from tissue culture that drastically reduces yield, and has largely halted efforts to clone elite hybrids for oil production. Widely regarded as an epigenetic phenomenon, 'mantling' has defied explanation, but here we identify the MANTLED locus using epigenome-wide association studies of the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis. DNA hypomethylation of a LINE retrotransposon related to rice Karma, in the intron of the homeotic gene DEFICIENS, is common to all mantled clones and is associated with alternative splicing and premature termination. Dense methylation near the Karma splice site (termed the Good Karma epiallele) predicts normal fruit set, whereas hypomethylation (the Bad Karma epiallele) predicts homeotic transformation, parthenocarpy and marked loss of yield. Loss of Karma methylation and of small RNA in tissue culture contributes to the origin of mantled, while restoration in spontaneous revertants accounts for non-Mendelian inheritance. The ability to predict and cull mantling at the plantlet stage will facilitate the introduction of higher performing clones and optimize environmentally sensitive land resources.
Tropical mountains are hot spots of biodiversity and endemism, but the evolutionary origins of their unique biotas are poorly understood. In varying degrees, local and regional extinction, long-distance colonization, and local recruitment may all contribute to the exceptional character of these communities. Also, it is debated whether mountain endemics mostly originate from local lowland taxa, or from lineages that reach the mountain by long-range dispersal from cool localities elsewhere. Here we investigate the evolutionary routes to endemism by sampling an entire tropical mountain biota on the 4,095-metre-high Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia. We discover that most of its unique biodiversity is younger than the mountain itself (6 million years), and comprises a mix of immigrant pre-adapted lineages and descendants from local lowland ancestors, although substantial shifts from lower to higher vegetation zones in this latter group were rare. These insights could improve forecasts of the likelihood of extinction and 'evolutionary rescue' in montane biodiversity hot spots under climate change scenarios.