Abiotic stress

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Abiotic stress is defined as the negative impact of non-living factors on the living organisms in a specific environment.[1] The non-living variable must influence the environment beyond its normal range of variation to adversely affect the population performance or individual physiology of the organism in a significant way.[2] Whereas a biotic stress would include such living disturbances as fungi or harmful insects, abiotic stress factors, or stressors, are naturally occurring, often intangible, factors such as intense sunlight or wind that may cause harm to the plants and animals in the area affected. Abiotic stress is essentially unavoidable. Abiotic stress affects animals, but plants are especially dependent on environmental factors, so it is particularly constraining. Abiotic stress is the most harmful factor concerning the growth and productivity of crops worldwide.[3] Research has also shown that abiotic stressors are at their most harmful when they occur together, in combinations of abiotic stress factors.[4]


Examples of abiotic stress

Abiotic stress comes in many forms. The most common of the stressors are the easiest for people to identify, but there are many other, less recognizable abiotic stress factors which affect environments constantly. The most basic stressors include: high winds, extreme temperatures, drought, flood, and other natural disasters, such as tornados and wildfires. The lesser-known stressors generally occur on a smaller scale and so are less noticeable, but they include: poor edaphic conditions like rock content and pH, high radiation, compaction, contamination, and other, highly specific conditions like rapid rehydration during seed germination.[5]

Effects of abiotic stress

Abiotic stress, as a natural part of every ecosystem, will affect organisms in a variety of ways. Although these effects may be either beneficial or detrimental, the location of the area is crucial in determining the extent of the impact that abiotic stress will have. The higher the latitude of the area affected, the greater the impact of abiotic stress will be on that area. So, a taiga or boreal forest is at the mercy of whatever abiotic stress factors may come along, while tropical zones are much less susceptible to such stressors.[6]


One example of a situation where abiotic stress plays a constructive role in an ecosystem is in natural wildfires. While they can be a human safety hazard, it is productive for these ecosystems to burn out every once in a while so that new organisms can begin to grow and thrive. Even though it is healthy for an ecosystem, a wildfire can still be considered an abiotic stressor, because it puts an obvious stress on individual organisms within the area. Every tree that is scorched and each bird nest that is devoured is a sign of the abiotic stress. On the larger scale, though, natural wildfires are positive manifestations of abiotic stress.[7] What also needs to be taken into account when looking for benefits of abiotic stress, is that one phenomenon may not affect an entire ecosystem in the same way. While a flood will kill most plants living low on the ground in a certain area, if there is rice there, it will thrive in the wet conditions. Another example of this is in, phytoplankton and zooplankton. The same types of conditions are usually considered stressful for these two types of organisms. They act very similarly when exposed to ultraviolet light and most toxins, but at elevated temperatures the phytoplankton reacts negatively, while the thermophilic zooplankton reacts positively to the increase in temperature. The two may be living in the same environment, but an increase in temperature of the area would prove stressful only for one of the organisms.[2] Lastly, abiotic stress has enabled species to grow, develop, and evolve, furthering natural selection as it picks out the weakest of a group of organisms. Both plants and animals have evolved mechanisms allowing them to survive extremes.[8]

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