Magazine article Science News

It Takes a Village: Tweaking Neighbors Reroutes Evolution

Magazine article Science News

It Takes a Village: Tweaking Neighbors Reroutes Evolution

Article excerpt

When it comes to evolution, no plant stands alone.

For mustard plants, investing heavily in pest defense is a good idea if a different plant species lives next door, says Richard Lankau of the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign. If the nearest plant happens to be another mustard, however, then the investment in protection becomes a bloated military budget and the offspring suffer.

Plant communities influence evolutionary forces in very complex ways, a new study finds. Lankau and Sharon Strauss at the University of California, Davis have demonstrated that a plant's surrounding community can boost, shrink, or even reverse evolutionary forces. The relationships are complex enough to make evolutionary outcomes unpredictable, says Lankan.

"This study is amazing," says Anurag Agrawal of Cornell University. "It will make it more difficult to justify studying the evolution of a species in the absence of its real ecological context."

The idea that communities influence evolution isn't new. "Perhaps even Darwin would have argued that it must be so," says Agrawal. However, as researchers begin to consider such influences in their studies, "the logistical, statistical, and conceptual hurdles are substantial," he says.

Lankau and Strauss focused on black mustard plants. Like other members of the mustard family, Brassica nigra produces strong-flavored substances that can discourage indiscriminant grazers such as slugs. The black mustard produces most of its defense chemicals in the form of an amino acid called sinigrin. …

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