Climate change and risks 2 min

Plant resilience under extreme conditions: innovation leads to new discoveries in the Atacama desert

PRESS RELEASE - Twenty-four plant species from the remote Atacama Desert in South America are the stars of a joint project between INRAE, the University of Bordeaux and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The project has been looking at plant resilience mechanisms in this extreme environment, one of the most arid on the planet. Innovative use of multi-species analysis has enabled the scientists to discover molecular markers common to all 24 species that can be used to predict differences in the plants’ environment (altitudes, variations in temperature and water availability). Their results, published in New Phytologist, reveal the existence of core mechanisms used by a wide range of plants to adapt to extreme conditions. The approach developed by the team is applicable to cultivated species in more temperate climates, offering an effective method to identify mechanisms that would enable crops to adapt to environmental stresses.

Published on 29 March 2022

illustration Plant resilience under extreme conditions: innovation leads to new discoveries in the Atacama desert
© INRAE - Thomas Dussarat

The harsh world of the Atacama Desert

This desert, which is the only one of its kind on Earth, is one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet, where altitudes of between 2400 and 4500 metres, extreme temperature stress in the upper elevations, high salinity at lower altitudes, low soil nitrogen content and very strong light levels, conspire to create the harshest of conditions for the small group of plants that grow there. In light of the ongoing climate emergency, the team chose to explore the mechanisms by which these plants adapt to the extreme conditions using the science of metabolomics, the study of all molecules involved in a living plant’s metabolism.

Revealed: plants use the same strategies to adapt to extreme environments

Predictive metabolomics is an innovative technique that has made it possible for scientists from INRAE working on resilience mechanisms to analyse nearly 5000 metabolic markers from the 24 dominant plant species growing at a range of different altitudes in the Atacama. Their use of statistical processing, based on machine learning1, enabled them to identify  39 compounds that were present in all species studied, sufficient to predict a plant’s immediate environment with a 79% accuracy rate. The team was successful in linking the variations it observed in these molecules to a number of environmental stress factors such as freezing temperatures, water deficit and strong light.

The study also demonstrates that very different wild species adopt the same evolutionary metabolic strategies to adapt and develop resilience in extreme environmental conditions. Remarkably, predictors identified by the team are also to be found in crop species grown elsewhere such as Poaceae (including maize), Fabaceae (peas), Solanaceae (tomatoes) and Asteraceae (sunflowers). Currently,  the development of a new plant species to match chosen environmental criteria (such as frost resistance) demands a decade of work by scientists and producers. Use of the multi-species approach that has benefited this study would vastly reduce this time-scale, allowing growers to adapt more speedily to the constraints of climate change.


Dussarrat, T., Prigent, S., Latorre, C., Bernillon, S., Flandin, A., Díaz, F. P., et al. (2022). Predictive metabolomics of multiple Atacama plant species unveils a core set of generic metabolites for extreme climate resilience. New Phytologist, nph.18095. DOI:10.1111/nph.18095.


[1]  Machine learning involves a statistical approach that enables machines to learn automatically from algorithms, often using very large data sets.


Learn more

Climate change and risks

Climate change and global drylands: Identifying three ecosystem response thresholds

PRESS RELEASE - Climate change does not simply involve an increase in temperatures but also drastic changes to both the way ecosystems function and the landscapes around us. This was revealed in a study published in the journal Science on 14 February 2020 by an international researcher consortium in which INRAE plays an active role. The study describes how an increase in our planet's overall aridity - as forecast by the current context of climate change (1) - leads to abrupt changes in the functioning of dryland ecosystems worldwide, limiting their ability to sustain life and provide essential ecosystem services to the human communities that depend on them. The study identified three transition thresholds. Some 20% of the Earth's land surface area could be affected by the year 2100.

13 February 2020


Symbioses between plants, fungi and bacteria: a new look at these ancestral alliances

PRESS RELEASE - A review appearing in the online edition of Science (26th May 2017), authored by three INRA researchers (associated with the Universities of Lorraine and Toulouse and the CNRS), starts with an overview of the rich evolutionary history of the principal mycorrhizal and nitrogen-fixing plant symbioses. This is followed by a discussion of key conserved features which characterize these mutually beneficial plant-microbe associations, including the molecular and cellular mechanisms which are involved in the successful colonization of plant roots by the respective fungal and bacterial symbionts. A deeper understanding of these mechanisms and their modulation by different factors (plant genotype, soil type etc) will be essential for facilitating the future use of the entire plant microbiota in developing sustainable agriculture practices.

19 March 2020


Evolution follows climate: oaks adapted rapidly to climate change in the Anthropocene

PRESS RELEASE - The acceleration of global warming due to human activities has made the pace of tree evolution and adaptation a core concern of researchers and foresters. Researchers from INRAE, the ONF, the CEA and the universities of Uppsala (Sweden) and Zhejiang (China) studied the evolution of oak trees in three French forests over the last three centuries, from the cold period of the Little Ice Age to the warming caused by human activities. Their results, published on 6 January in Evolution Letters, show that oaks evolve rapidly and can adapt to climatic changes in just a few generations. According to these findings, forest managers should shorten generations and promote natural forest regeneration to facilitate rapid stand evolution.

04 January 2022