Showing posts with label pathogens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pathogens. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Organic farming and natural enemy evenness

ResearchBlogging.orgThe basic reality of agricultural activity is that it reduces biological diversity, and these reductions in diversity potentially impact ecosystem services. But do some agricultural practices impact these services less than others? In a recent paper in Nature by David Crowder and colleagues, the question of how organic versus conventional farming affects predator and herbivore pathogen diversity and how this cascades to pest suppression. They show through a meta-analysis, that organic farms tend to support greater natural enemy evenness, and they hypothesize that greater evenness of enemies should better control pest populations, resulting in larger, more productive plants.

Picture from wikipedia

This result in itself is interesting, but they also carried out an elegant enclosure experiment where they manipulate the evenness of insect predators and pathogens and measure potato plant size. They found that even communities had the lowest herbivore densities and saw the greatest increases in plant biomass. Conversely, very uneven communities, typical of conventional farms, had the largest pest populations resulting in lower plant biomass accumulation.

While, multiple farming strategies are needed for adequate agricultural production, there are strong arguments for organic farms to be a important part of agricultural practice. These results show that organic farms have cascading effects on pest predators and pathogens and show that enemy evenness, as opposed to richness, has important ecosystem service consequences. To quote myself, evenness is a critical component of biodiversity, and much research has emphasized species richness, maybe at the detriment of studying evenness.

Crowder, D., Northfield, T., Strand, M., & Snyder, W. (2010). Organic agriculture promotes evenness and natural pest control Nature, 466 (7302), 109-112 DOI: 10.1038/nature09183

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The evolution of a symbiont

ResearchBlogging.orgThe evolution of negative interactions seems like a logical consequence of natural selection. Organisms compete for resources or view one another as a resource, thus finding ways to more efficiently find and consume prey. However, to me, the natural selection of symbiotic or mutualistic interactions has never seemed as straight forward (expect maybe the case where one species provides protection for the other, such as in ant-plant mutualisms). A specific example is the rise of nitrogen-fixing plants, who supply nutrients to bacteria called rhizobia capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen into forms, such as ammonia, usable to the plant host. Not only has this symbiosis evolved, but has seemed to evolve in very evolutionarily distinct lineages. The question is, what are the mechanisms allowing for this?

In a recent paper, Marchetti and colleagues answer part of the question. They experimentally manipulate a pathogenic bacteria and observe it turning into a symbiont. They transferred a plasmid from the symbiotic nitrogen fixing Cupriavidus taiwanensis into Ralstonia solanacearum and infected Mimosa roots with it. Plasmid transfer among distinct bacteria species is common and referred to horizontal genetic transfer (as opposed to vertical, which is the transfer to daughter cells). The presence of the plasmid caused R. solanacearum to quickly evolve into a root-nodulating symbiont. Two regulatory genes lost function, and this caused R. solanacearum to form nodules and to impregnate Mimosa root cells.

This extremely novel experiment reveals how horizontal gene transfer can supply the impetus for rapid evolution from being a pathogen to a symbiont. More importantly it reveals that sometimes just a few steps are required for this transition and how distantly-related bacterial species can acquire symbiotic behaviors.

Marchetti, M., Capela, D., Glew, M., Cruveiller, S., Chane-Woon-Ming, B., Gris, C., Timmers, T., Poinsot, V., Gilbert, L., Heeb, P., M├ędigue, C., Batut, J., & Masson-Boivin, C. (2010). Experimental Evolution of a Plant Pathogen into a Legume Symbiont PLoS Biology, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000280