Studying the impact of climate change through plants

Plants produce a number of gases, including biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs). The chemistry of these compounds is very diverse, enabling plants to defend themselves against stress factors and to communicate with their environment. The study of BVOCs therefore constitutes an invaluable source of data on climate change.

BVOCs as climate change indicators

The Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF) is a Spanish public research institute based in the University of Barcelona, which specializes in land ecology and forestry in particular. Since 1994, the center has been studying the effects of climate change on the emission of biogenic volatile organic compounds by plants, under the leadership of Professor Josep Peñuelas, eco-physiology specialist and director of the global ecology unit. These compounds have been shown to play a role in climate change: due to their reactivity in the atmosphere, they indirectly extend the life of greenhouse gases, so they are pollutants. Global warming reinforces this phenomenon by modifying plants’ metabolisms and their processes of defense and communication.

Studying how plants adapt

To establish an overall pattern for BVOC emissions, CREAF is studying what are the effects of  biotic and abiotic factors. The aim is to measure the impact of these various factors and determine how plants have adapted to environmental constraints. Equipment funded by the Air Liquide Foundation enables the researchers to measure the levels of gases emitted by the plants. “With these devices, we can gauge the impact of changes in light and temperature and appraise biological and environmental changes. We also observe the interaction of plants with other organisms and the effects of emissions in a context where they are competing for resources,” explains Professor Peñuelas. “We have a ten-strong team working on this project and I regularly go out into the field myself to collect data.” Part of the study is being carried out in greenhouses with artificially high CO2 concentrations. The study covers several regions of Spain, where the vegetation and climate vary. The country lends itself well to this type of study since many of its plant species –  including rosemary, pine, rock rose, and oak – produce high levels of secondary metabolites, in the form of essential oils, resins or their related BVOCs.

Useful Research Outcomes

This project will benefit the whole scientific community, especially those working in the field of climate change forecasting, as well as model developers. But the results also have wider constructive applications. As Professor Peñuelas emphasizes, BVOCs are involved in biological processes that contribute to the stability of our environment: “This research has potential applications in forestry and in farming, especially in terms of the impact on insects – and consequently on pollination.” It’s the first time we’ve worked with the Foundation. This collaboration makes us optimistic about the practical applications of our work and I’m very happy about the support we’ve received.”


To find our more

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This is a very interesting project that could lead to a lot of different breakthroughs in environmental sciences. BVOCs have been shown to play a role in biological processes like pollination, for example, and therefore are definitely connected to environmental sustainability.

Amelie Carron
Market Analyst
Engineering & Construction - ALE