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Evolution can reconfigure gene networks to deal with environmental change



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Researchers at the University of Birmingham have decoded the genetic mechanisms for adapting tiny water fleas to the increased phosphorus load in lakes.

By mapping gene networks to the physiological responses of old and modern water fleas (Daphnia), researchers at the University's School of Biosciences have demonstrated a cluster of over 800 genes, many of which are involved in the metabolism is processes that have been developed into "plastic" or flexible processes.

This allows modern Daphnia to adapt its gene expression to the amount of phosphorous present in the environment. This is particularly intriguing as their 700-year-old ancestors were unable to respond to such a plastic reaction.

An understanding of adaptability helps scientists to better predict the ability of these creatures to tackle the phosphorus threat.

Impressively, the team was only able to make these discoveries by comparing the reactions of modern Daphnia with their 700-year-old ancestors. Both the modern and the old samples studied came from the same lake in Minnesota, where eutrophication ̵

1; a process that causes devastating algal blooms with high phosphorus content – began in the early 20th century.

Modern industrialized agriculture with its widespread use of phosphorus-based fertilizers enhances the multiple pressures on wildlife. The phosphorus eventually enters our freshwater systems, causing eutrophication. Daphnia can help reduce these blooms, but they have to deal with the increased phosphorus content that can cause health problems.

Dr. Dagmar Frisch, dr. Dörthe Becker and dr. Marcin Wojewodzic, all three winners of the prestigious EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowships, jointly developed new concepts for evolutionary ecology that made this analysis possible.

"We used existing data and state-of-the-art analytical methods to link patterns of gene expression with the physiological responses that allow these animals to deal with elevated levels of environmental phosphorus," Dr. Dagmar Frisch, an expert in environmental paleogenomics. "This allowed us to identify which part of the gene network was responsible for the newly developed reaction."

While this work helps us better understand how animals generally adapt to new environments, Dr. Ing. The University of Sheffield emphasizes: "Because Daphnia is one of the key species in aquatic ecosystems, our study ultimately improves our understanding of how aquatic ecosystems can mitigate some of the effects of eutrophication, one of the largest global threats to the freshwater environment." 19659005] Resurrecting eggs in the sediment of lakes, a method called resurrection ecology, allowed the authors to compare the gene responses of centuries-old revived water fleas in a novel way to modern descendants.

"We used network analysis methods to find out which genes" communicate "or cluster with others (called modules) and how this gene communication in a key species has changed over the last 700 years. In addition, we were able to identify these modules with certain observed features which was first achieved in resurrection ecology, "says Dr. Marcin Wojewodzic, now a researcher in the Norwegian Cancer Registry.

"Our study emphasizes This evolution is a result of molecular fine-tuning, which takes place at various levels, ranging from basic cellular responses to complex physiological features," says Dr. Becker.

Dr. Frisch adds, "Our approach allows for a more holistic view of how animals can respond to environmental change, thereby improving our understanding of organisms as integrated units of biological organization."

"After applying the recently developed network analysis, the logical next step is to investigate how other molecular mechanisms, including epigenetics, play a role in evolutionary processes. Wojewodzic.

This work is published today in Molecular Biology and Evolution ].


Researchers are studying environmental conditions that cause harmful algal blooms


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University of Birmingham




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Evolution can reconfigure gene networks to handle environmental change (2019, November 13)
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