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[VIDEO] Climate Change and Evolution: Small Changes Can Alter Entire Ecosystems

Sep 10, 2015 06:11 PM EDT
Dowles Brook
Seemingly small genetic changes can result in significant mutations throughout entire ecosystems.
(Photo : Flickr: Justin Heath)

Even the slightest of changes in one species can throw off entire ecosystems, researchers say, after recently studying genetic mutations. While many studies have examined how environmental changes are linked to species extinctions, scientists from Trinity College Dublin examined ecosystem changes on a much finer scale.

"We know that predators are hugely important in influencing how ecosystems are structured, as they control the numbers and diversity of other species in the food web. It is incredible that such a small genetic change can cause these mutants to completely alter communities as much as the extinction of something as important as a predator," Dr. Ian Donohue, assistant professor of zoology at Trinity, said in a news release.

To examine the repercussions of a single mutation, the team of researchers replicated ecological systems in the lab using bacteria. They found that what they called "social mutants" have the ability to alter the structure of entire communities.

Environmental conditions have the potential also to trigger mutations and microevolution. This study suggests that microevolution may be the key for understanding communities' responses to environmental change.

"It's amazing to know that just one change in a single gene has the potential to have such a huge effect that it can change whole ecosystems," Deirdre McClean, lead author of the study and Ph.D. researcher in zoology at Trinity, said in the release.

Their findings, recently published in Nature Communications, have many potential applications.

"Aside from the big-picture message, developing our understanding of the effects of bacterial behaviour on community composition might prove critical in the development of treatments aimed at manipulating our gut microbiota, for example," Donohue said in a statement

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN). 

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