It's common knowledge that genes control traits such as eye and hair color. But a large group of scientists from two continents has found that the genes of one organism not only control the characteristics of that individual but also dictate the behavior of thousands of other organisms in a community.
They say these genes, in fact, influence the evolution of an entire ecosystem.
"We're pushing a whole new field of research," said lead investigator Tom Whitham, Regents Professor of biological sciences at Northern Arizona University.
It's a field that has not been explored before. After all, the idea of looking at the genes of thousands of species in even a simple community is daunting at best.
"What we've done is zero in on a foundation species, because not all species are as equally important ecologically," Whitham said. The foundation, or key, species in this case is the cottonwood tree, which is the first tree to have all its genes sequenced, or mapped.
Among the genes under study are those that control the level of tannins in cottonwoods, which are dominant trees in riparian habitats in the West. Different individuals, or genotypes, of cottonwoods have different levels of tannins.
These genetically controlled tannin levels drive the structure--or phenotype--of a riparian forest, according to Whitham. Tannins affect the decomposition rate of cottonwood leaves, which in turn affects the fertility of soils, which affects the microbes in the soil, which affect the insects that live in the soil or eat the leaves, which affect the birds that feed on the insects, and so on.
In the July issue of Nature Reviews Genetics and the May issue of Evolution, Whitham and fellow researchers discuss how this phenotype is heritable on an ecosystem level. That is, the progeny of a tree are likely to support the same communities of organisms and ecosystem processes that their parents supported.
It's a premise with far-reaching implications. Consider, for example, conservation efforts to preserve biodiversity in the face of habitat destruction, climate change and other impacts on the environment. Planting trees that are genetically diverse will result in increased diversity of other species in the dependent community. The greater the tree diversity, the greater the chance of associated species surviving environmental degradation.
"It's not enough to save rare and endangered species. We need to save genetic diversity in the foundation species," said Jennifer Schweitzer, a co-author of the Nature Reviews Genetics paper and postdoctoral researcher at NAU. "Having high genetic diversity in these foundation species is insurance against changes in the future."
The research also has ramifications when it comes to genetically modified organisms and their effects on the landscapes in which they are introduced. For example, grasses that are genetically altered to prevent weed growth could pass that resistance along to exotic plants, which then might take over a community and change the evolution of that ecosystem.
More than 50 researchers from the United States, Canada and Australia are studying this genetic driver of community structure and ecosystem evolution. The work is funded by a $5 million Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research grant from the National Science Foundation. The project includes scientists from a multitude of disciplines because, as Whitham says, "No one person has all the skills to do this."
"This is an exciting project with global impact, drawing on the expertise of geneticists, ecologists, molecular biologists, biogeographers and others," said Chris Greer, program director at the National Science Foundation. "The results are expected to not only shed light on how complex biological communities function but to inform efforts to address the impact of human activities, such as landscape fragmentation, on stressed ecosystems across the planet."
The researchers are the first to study the genetic framework of communities and ecosystems in the wild. They have planted several experimental "common gardens" of cottonwoods in Arizona and Utah. The trees are propagated at NAU's research greenhouse. Through DNA fingerprinting, the scientists know the precise genetic makeup of each tree.
In one experiment, Whitham's group worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to plant about 10,000 trees at the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge along the lower Colorado River, about 20 miles south of Blythe, Calif., to examine how genetic diversity at the stand level influences communities and ecosystem processes.
"The Bureau of Reclamation gets restoration out of this project, and we get this incredible experiment," said Whitham.
All of the experiments, so far, have exceeded the researchers' expectations. "Initially we thought that the [genetic influences] would be more localized--that the influences would be less genetic and more environmental as we moved beyond the local common garden setting to all of the western U.S." In the end, however, Whitham said, "Plant genes are far more important than we ever expected them to be."
Now the researchers want to know if their findings hold true in different environments around the world. "To understand how important something is, you have to test in multiple locations," Whitham said.
A parallel study in Australia that examines the eucalyptus tree as the foundation species is yielding the same results as the studies on cottonwoods. And Whitham has just returned from South Africa and Borneo in Southeast Asia, where he is planting the seeds for further study.
Tom Bauer | EurekAlert!
Funding of Collaborative Research Center developing nanomaterials for cancer immunotherapy extended
28.06.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Zeolite catalysts pave the road to decentral chemical processes Confined space increases reactivity
28.06.2017 | Technische Universität München
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
28.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
28.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
28.06.2017 | Health and Medicine