Friday, September 23, 2011

Eco-evosystem dynamics

In a recent Review & Synthesis paper in Ecology Letters, entitled "Toward
an Integration of Evolutionary Biology and Ecosystem Science", we set out
to find common ground between evolutionary biology, community ecology, and
ecosystem science ( Paper is here ).

This project started with a PhD summer school in 2009 at the Centre for
Ecology, Evolution and Biogeochemistry, in Kastanienbaum Switwerland
(Eawag CEEB). We recruited an all-star cast of lecturers that had a broad interest in eco-evolutionary dynamics, including: Jim Elser, Nelson Hairston Jr., Eric Triplett, Andrew Hendry, Elena Litchman, and Luc De Meester. For two weeks they regaled us (see
participants) with their stories, and inspired us to put something down on paper.

The proposed goal was simple: integrate ecosystem science with evolutionary biology.

Our starting point was a paper by Jim Elser in The American Naturalist
(Biological Stoichiometry: A Chemical Bridge between Ecosystem Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). This paper called for a unification of evolutionary thinking with ecosystem ecology and labelled this challenge "the most important frontier for biological integration".

Several sub-disciplines have taken up this challenge, including biodiversity and
ecosystem functioning research, ecological speciation, and community
genetics. Moving forward, I think the growing field of eco-evolutionary
dynamics can make a substantial contribution to this effort.

To make progress, we need to identify heritable traits that underlie the
effects organisms have on their ecosystems. If such traits are also a target
of natural selection, then phenotypic evolution might have predictable
consequences for ecosystem processes. This sounds easy enough, but to
do this we need to make 'interdisciplinary research' much less of a buzzword,
and more of a working reality.

Some of the best examples of integration between evolutionary biology and
ecosystem science have come from recent manipulative field and mesocosm
experiments. In this review, we have branded such experiments as "common
gardening experiments", to emphasize that organisms differ in how they
modify (or garden) their environment. So far, one in three reviewers
doesn't like this term, but we think it's useful.

Common gardening experiments bring researchers together from disparate disciplines. If you look at the authors lists of papers like Palkovacs et al. 2009 PTRS-B , Harmon et al. 2009 Nature , Bassar et al. 2010 PNAS , you will see a refreshing mix of researchers with backgrounds in both evolutionary biology and ecosystem science. These papers provide some initial proof-of-concept, but really only scratch the surface of the rich role that evolution can play in our natural ecosystems.

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