Experimental evolution meets marine phytoplankton

Our perspective highlights potentially important links between disparate fields – biological oceanography, climate change research, and experimental evolutionary biology. We focus on one important functional group – photoautotrophic microbes (phytoplankton) which are responsible for ∼50% of global primary productivity. Global climate change currently results in the simultaneous change of several conditions such as warming, acidification and nutrient supply. It thus has the potential to dramatically change phytoplankton physiology, community composition, and may result in adaptive evolution. Although their large population sizes, standing genetic variation and rapid turnover time should promote swift evolutionary change, oceanographers have focussed on describing patterns of present day physiological differentiation rather than measure potential adaptation in evolution experiments, the only direct way to address whether and at which rate phytoplankton species will adapt to environmental change. Important open questions are (i) is adaptation limited by existing genetic variation or fundamental constraints? (ii) will complex ecological settings such as gradual vs. abrupt environmental change influence adaptation processes? (iii) how will increasing environmental variability affect the evolution of phenotypic plasticity patterns? Since marine phytoplankton species display rapid acclimation capacity (phenotypic buffering), a systematic study of reaction norms renders them particularly interesting to the evolutionary biology research community.

Reusch T. B. H. & Boyd P. W., in press. Experimental evolution meets marine phytoplankton. Evolution. Article (subscription required).


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