UW’s Marina Alberti to lead new NSF-funded research network to study impact of cities on Earth’s evolutionary dynamics

Cities’ eco-evolutionary feedback - the topic of a new research coordinati

Cities’ eco-evolutionary feedback - the topic of a new research coordination network funded by the National Science Foundation. Marina Alberti

Here in what is called the Anthropocene era, humans and our urban environments appear to be driving accelerated evolutionary change in plants, animals, fungi, viruses and more - changes that could affect key ecosystem functions and thus human well-being. These interactions between evolution and ecology are called "eco-evolutionary feedback.”

The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $500,000 grant to a multi-institution research network team headed by Marina Alberti , University of Washington professor of urban design and planning, to advance understanding of these global eco-evolutionary dynamics.

Alberti is the author or co-author of several papers on the emerging topic, as well as a 2016 book, " Cities that Think Like Planets: Complexity, Resilience, and Innovation in Hybrid Ecosystems ” (UW Press).

"Cities are microcosms of the evolutionary changes that are occurring on a planetary scale,” Alberti writes in the grant statement, "and thus provide a natural laboratory to advance our understanding of eco-evolutionary dynamics in a rapidly urbanizing world and generate new insights for maintaining biodiversity.”

Human-caused evolutionary changes in plants, animals, fungi, viruses and other organisms can affect nutrient cycling, pollination, seed dispersal, water and air purification and food production. The challenge, Alberti writes, is to understand these mechanisms, "and determine whether these changes might affect ecosystem function at the planetary scale.”

Such a challenge can’t be fully met by any single field, she adds, and calls for a new level of collaboration - and sharing of data and methods --among evolutionary biologists, ecosystem scientists, urban ecologists, paleoecologists and archaeologists.

Alberti, who also directs the UW Urban Ecology Research Lab in the UW College of Built Environments, intends to lead the researchers to "perform long-term cross-comparative studies, to synthesize the science, and to explore mechanisms that link urban development patterns to rapid evolution and the potential for those changes to feed back to shape ecosystems.”

Key questions the research network will address are:

  • What is the evidence for urban signatures of phenotypic change - the physical manifestation of genes - distinct from natural and other anthropogenic, or human-caused drivers?
  • To what degree does urban trait change differ among branches of the tree of life?
  • To what degree can trait changes be attributed to phenotypic plasticity or to evolutionary change?
  • What are the functional consequences of urban-induced evolutionary changes on ecosystems?

Alberti is principal investigator for the new Research Coordination Network under the title "Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics in an Urban Planet: Underlying Mechanisms and Ecosystem Feedbacks.”

Co-principal investigators are Andrew Hendry of McGill University in Montreal, Marc Johnson of the University of Toronto at Mississauga, Jonathan Losos of Washington University in St. Louis and Jason Munshi-South , of Fordham University. The UW’s John Marzluff , a professor of environmental and forest sciences, is also part of the network.

Other researchers with the network are from Universidad Austral de Chile; Arizona State University; the University of Leuven, Belgium; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; the University of New Mexico; the University of Warsaw and Virginia Commonwealth University.


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