A single gene controls species diversity in an ecosystem

Study setup with the experimental ecosystems. Image: Matt Barbour

To test if a single gene could affect an entire ecosystem, a research team of the University of Zurich conducted a lab experiment with a plant and its associated ecosystem of insects. They found that plants with a mutation at a specific gene foster ecosystems with more insect species. The discovery of such a “keystone gene” could change current biodiversity conservation strategies.

Impacts on current biodiversity conservation
The discovery of a keystone gene is likely to have implications on how to conserve biodiversity in a changing world. In particular, knowledge from genetics and ecological networks should be included when it comes to predicting the consequences of genetic change for the persistence of biodiversity across scales. Individuals with different variants of a gene could be added to existing populations to foster more diverse and resilient ecosystems. However, a seemingly small genetic change could unleash a cascade of unintended consequences for ecosystems if not studied in detail first.

“We’re only just beginning to understand the implications of genetic change on how species interact and coexist. Our findings show that the current loss of genetic diversity may have cascading effects that lead to abrupt and catastrophic shifts in the persistence and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems,” says Barbour.

The research was carried out by SPWS member Prof. Jordi Bascompte and his team at the University of Zurich together with colleagues.

Reference publication
Matthew A. Barbour, Daniel J. Kliebenstein, Jordi Bascompte.
A keystone gene underlies the persistence of an experimental food web.
Science. March 31, 2022. DOI: 10.1126/science.abf2232

UZH News release (in English)
UZH News Medienmitteilung (auf deutsch)