Plastic fantastic: phenotypic plasticity, evolution, and adaptation of marine picoplankton in response to elevated pCO2
Schaum, Charlotte Elisa Luise
Small but mighty phytoplankton can be used as excellent model organisms to answer questions that are of importance to marine biologists and researchers in experimental evolution alike. For example, marine biologists are interested in finding out, how, in a changing ocean, the phytoplankton foundation of the ocean ecosystem is going to change - can we use short-term data to extrapolate to longer timescales? What are the physiological consequences of selection in stable and fluctuating high-pCO2 environments? From a more evolutionary perspective, is elevated pCO2 alone enough to drive evolution in marine algae? Can we select organisms to maintain plasticity in fluctuating environments, and how does selection in a fluctuating environment affect their ability to evolve? Can we detect a cost of plasticity? I have used theoretical and practical approaches from both disciplines to answer these questions, as they are ultimately similar questions that are important to address, and the lack of communication between disciplines has lead to conflicting predictions on the fate of populations in changing environments. Using evolutionary theory and applying it to an organism with a known function in the marine environment allows us to make ecologically relevant predictions while also enabling us to disentangle the underlying evolutionary mechanisms. While there have been some studies focusing on evolution of marine algae in climate change scenarios since I started my PhD, my study is the first to test the link between phenotypic plasticity and adaptation empirically, and it is also the first to use 16 rather than single or few genotypes of an algae, thereby creating the statistical power necessary to make any predictions. In a short-term CO2 enrichment study, and a selection experiment, those 16 physiologically and genetically distinct lineages of Ostreococcus, the smallest free living eukaryote, were selected for 400 generations in fluctuating and stable high pCO2 environments. I have shown that short-term plastic responses in phenotype can predict the magnitude of long-term evolutionary ones. Ostreococcus lineages in fluctuating environments evolve to be more plastic with no associated costs, and the adaptive response to selection in a high pCO2 environment is to grow more slowly in monoculture, but to be more successful competitors in mixed culture. High-pCO2 evolved lineages are genetically and physiologically different from their ancestors. Importantly, their quality as a food source for zooplankton will change, with possible repercussions for the ocean ecosystem at a whole. Furthermore, the lineages’ ability to perceive pCO2 levels in the surrounding medium is altered after evolution in fluctuating and high pCO2 environment, allowing them to broaden the window in which they can respond to changes in their environment without suffering metabolic stress.
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