Recent University of Edinburgh study helps predictions of ecosystem change in repsonse to multiple environmental drivers

A recent paper in Nature Climate Change from researchers in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, sheds light on how ecosytems change in response to multiple environmental drivers

Photosynthetic microbes are the base of marine and freshwater ecosystems.  How these microbes respond when many aspects of their environment change simultaneously is a key feature of how whole ecosystems can respond to global change. 

Georgina Brennan and Sinéad Collins in the School of Biological Sciences have recently demonstrated that population growth declines in a predictable way with the number of environmental drivers.  Their data now provide an empirically supported model for scaling up from studies on organismal responses to single drivers to predict responses to large numbers of environmental drivers.

Dominant drivers of environmental change

The researchers used 8 different environmental drivers, including temperature, pH, and CO2 and herbicide concentrations, to test the idea that simply knowing the number of drivers in a changing environment could predict population growth responses. 

Using the single-celled green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (see image on right) to disentangle the effects of the number of environmental drivers, from the identity of those drivers on population growth, the researchers found that population level responses could indeed be predicted from the total number of drivers.

Brennan and Collins suggest that the observed changes are because the biotic response to multiple environmental drivers depends on the response to the single dominant driver ((in this case the presence of herbicide in the growth media), and the chance of a driver of large effect being present increases with the number of drivers. 

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