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Genetic differences influence the structure of communities

Posted on 28 March 2011

Scientists from the University of York are among a group of researchers investigating how genetic differences among individuals contribute to the way ecological communities form, interact and change over time.

They say that understanding how individuals interact and form sustainable communities can help society to address issues including food security, prevention of disease and the coexistence between humans and nature in a crowded world.

Differences among individuals matter and should change the way we think about communities

Dr Jennifer Rowntree

Biologists from the Universities of York, Manchester and St Andrews have edited a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society-B published on 28 March 2011 which focuses on how genetic interactions between individuals shape communities of plants and animals.

“Community Genetics: at the cross-roads of ecology and evolutionary genetics” contains 13 research articles and commentaries by researchers, from the UK, the USA and Spain, examining how variation within species changes interactions among species.

The issue’s co-editor, Dr Jennifer Rowntree, of the Department of Biology at York, said: “Although this field of research is relatively new, the message is already clear – differences among individuals matter and should change the way we think about communities.”

Dr Rowntree’s research focuses how genetic diversity among individual plants structures ecological communities. She works with yellow rattle, a parasitic plant common in hay meadows, which increases plant biodiversity and can be used to restore degraded habitats. Her research has shown that genetic variation in the plant community can change the effects of infection by yellow rattle.

Fellow contributor, Dr Julia Ferrari, also of the Department of Biology at York, works on bacterial symbionts which live inside insects and can change the way their host interacts with other species.

She said: “Knowledge of genetic differences between strains of bacteria and insect hosts is crucial for controlling plant pests, the transmission of plant viruses and human disease.”

Notes to editors:

  • The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of science. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as a provider of independent scientific advice, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. Its expertise is embodied in the Fellowship, which is made up of the finest scientists from the UK and beyond. Its goals are to:
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    • Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery
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  • The University of York’s Department of Biology is one of the leading centres for biological teaching and research in the UK. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, it was ranked equal first among broad spectrum bioscience departments in the UK for quality that was judged to be world-leading. The Department both teaches degree courses and undertakes research across the whole spectrum of modern Biology, from molecular genetics and biochemistry to ecology.

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