Genetic specificity of a plant–insect food web: Implications for linking genetic variation to network complexity

Matthew A. Barbour, Miguel A. Fortuna, Jordi Bascompte, Joshua R. Nicholson, Riitta Julkunen-Tiitto, Erik S. Jules, Gregory M. Crutsinger
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
  • DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1513633113

Genetic variation increases food-web complexity

What is it about?

Insects, plants, and their feeding interactions form food webs that regulate much of Earth’s biodiversity. Using a common garden experiment, quantitative genetics, and a computer simulation, we discovered that different plant genotypes supported unique food chains of insect species, resulting in a 20% increase in food-web complexity over the range of genetic variation in the plant population. This novel result was due to the direct and indirect effects of genetic variation in leaf carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, leaf phenolic chemistry, and plant size on insect food chains.

Why is it important?

We provide the first evidence that genetic variation within species is capable of increasing food-web complexity. Given that food-web complexity is known to buffer food webs when they are disturbed, this work puts us in a position to predict how processes that alter genetic variation within a population (e.g. natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation) will affect the structure, and in turn resilience of food webs to future environmental change.


Dr Matt Barbour
University of British Columbia

Ecological networks often focus on the structure of interactions between species, assuming that all individuals within a species are functionally the same. We demonstrate that it is no longer safe to make this assumption and that heritable differences between individuals can scale up to affect the structure of ecological networks.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Matt Barbour and Dr. Miguel A Fortuna