An eco-evolutionary network of biotic interactions

Diversity at all levels of biological organization is shaped by processes related to selection, drift, dispersal and - dependent on the level of organization - speciation/mutation. These ecological and evolutionary processes interact at small to large temporal and spatial scales and generate tightly linked eco-evolutionary dynamics. They thereby affect population responses to environmental change, including the potential for evolutionary rescue. To date, most of these insights are generated from theory and experimental work based on single species or small interacting units (two or three species, e.g. predator-prey). Species do, however, not live in isolation, but in interacting networks. These biotic interactions typically range from positive mutualistic interactions (pollinator or mycorrhizal networks), over neutral to negative antagonistic interactions (in foodwebs and disease networks). Despite the awareness that losses or changes of biotic interactions will eventually impact functional aspects of ecosystems (ecosystem health), they remain a neglected component of biodiversity.

The eco-evolutionary dynamics of biotic interactions need to be considered if we aim to move the field of ecology towards a predictive science. Because interactions may evolve by selection in communities, and because the number of interactions exponentially increase with the number of species in networks, ecologists have most often considered them as a black box and rely on statistical approaches that lack a mechanistic foundation to forecast species' responses to global change.

This FWO-funded research network aims to advance the field of eco-evolutionary interactions by stimulating advanced collaborations within the research community. The network brings together researchers that are specialized in the field of ecology and evolution, though tackling research questions by means of different approaches and model systems. The proposed multi-disciplinary research community includes both theoretical and empirical biologists, using various aquatic, terrestrial and microbial model systems, and integrates research groups with strong methodological and conceptual expertise in genomics and bio-informatics, network analysis and computation biology. The network will stimulate multidisciplinary collaborations in order to raise the level of eco-evolutionary research in Flanders and to foster its use in predictive ecology. This will be achieved by means of active research collaboration among partners, the organization of specialized workshops to develop conceptual perspectives and synthesis papers, and the organization of bi-annual symposia for graduates, postdoctoral fellows and staff.

Spokesman: Dries Bonte

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