Impacts of global warming in sentinel systems: from genes to ecosystems

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Life Sciences

Abstract

The impacts of climate change, and warming in particular, on natural ecosystems remain poorly understood, and research to date has focused on individual species (e.g. range shifts of polar bears). Multispecies systems (food webs, ecosystems), however, can possess emergent properties that can only be understood using a system-level perspective. Within a given food web, the microbial world is the engine that drives key ecosystem processes, biogeochemical cycles (e.g. the carbon-cycle) and network properties, but has been hidden from view due to difficulties with identifying which microbes are present and what they are doing. The recent revolution in Next Generation Sequencing has removed this bottleneck and we can now open the microbial "black box" to characterise the metagenome ("who is there?") and metatranscriptome ("what are they doing?") of the community for the first time. These advances will allow us to address a key overarching question: should we expect a global response to global warming? There are bodies of theory that suggest this might be the case, including the "Metabolic Theory of Ecology" and the "Everything is Everywhere" hypothesis of global microbial biogeography, yet these ideas have yet to be tested rigorously at appropriate scales and in appropriate experimental contexts that allow us to identify patterns and causal relationships in real multispecies systems.

We will assess the impacts of warming across multiple levels of biological organisation, from genes to food webs and whole ecosystems, using geothermally warmed freshwaters in 5 high-latitude regions (Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, Kamchatka), where warming is predicted to be especially rapid,. Our study will be the first to characterise the impacts of climate change on multispecies systems at such an unprecedented scale. Surveys of these "sentinel systems" will be complemented with modelling and experiments conducted in these field sites, as well as in 100s of large-scale "mesocosms" (artificial streams and ponds) in the field and 1,000s of "microcosms" of robotically-assembled microbial communities in the laboratory.

Our novel genes-to-ecosystems approach will allow us to integrate measures of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. For instance, we will quantify key functional genes as well as quantifying which genes are switched on (the "metatranscriptome") in addition to measuring ecosystem functioning (e.g. processes related to the carbon cycle). We will also measure the impacts of climate change on the complex networks of interacting species we find in nature - what Darwin called "the entangled bank" - because food webs and other types of networks can produce counterintuitive responses that cannot be predicted from studying species in isolation.


One general objective is to assess the scope for "biodiversity insurance" and resilience of natural systems in the face of climate change. We will combine our intercontinental surveys with natural experiments, bioassays, manipulations and mathematical models to do this. For instance, we will characterise how temperature-mediated losses to biodiversity can compromise key functional attributes of the gene pool and of the ecosystem as a whole.

There is an assumption in the academic literature and in policy that freshwater ecosystems are relatively resilient because the apparently huge scope for functional redundancy could allow for compensation for species loss in the face of climate change. However, this has not been quantified empirically in natural systems, and errors in estimating the magnitude of functional redundancy could have substantial environmental and economic repercussions. The research will address a set of key specific questions and hypotheses within our 5 themed Workpackages, of broad significance to both pure and applied ecology, and which also combine to provide a more holistic perspective than has ever been attempted previously.

Planned Impact

The proposed project has the potential to have huge impacts on both the academic and non-academic communities, as it addresses a fundamentally important question of global significance: what are the consequences of warming for biodiversity and the functioning of multi species systems? At an international level it has clear resonance for bodies involved with both scientific research and its implementation into policy, such as the IPCC and Diversitas/Future Earth (the Project Leader is a member of the Scientific Committee of the ecoSERVICES Project within Future Earth). At a national level, as an example, the British Ecology Society have recently produced a specially commissioned volume of Ecological Issues on Extreme Climatic Events in Freshwater Ecosystems that was launched at the Houses of Parliament in June 2013. The Principal Investigator (Woodward) leads the BES Aquatic Group and was also one of the authors of the report, which stresses the need to take a more integrated approach and to incorporate consideration of the microbial drivers of ecosystem service provision (e.g., carbon sequestration), and to link the underlying science more explicitly to future regulatory and management decisions.

The main national beneficiaries of this research among the end-user and stakeholder communities include the major UK environmental/conservation agencies (Department of Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Environment Agency (EA), Natural England (NE), Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS)), for whom understanding, predicting and mitigating the impacts of climate change in natural ecosystems is an essential remit falling under the 10 year Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) programme (www.nerc.ac.uk/research/programmes/lwec/). In particular, the outputs from our bioinformatics databases can ultimately be used to inform policy decisions regarding climate change and human induced perturbations to natural ecosystems.

The research outputs will also aid other regulatory and legislative end-users in identifying systems that may be particularly sensitive to climate change and will therefore also be of interest to commercial bodies (e.g. Syngenta, who work closely with Prof. Muggleton, and Unilever both have interest in understanding how warming will affect microbial assemblages and carbon sequestration). These include environmental consultancies and water companies, and industries that emit thermal discharges to aquatic systems, which are subject to biomonitoring and legislative regulation (e.g. the Scottish Speyside distillery industry that is monitored and regulated by SEPA).

Finally, the theoretical developments and new data gathered will be of particular interest to members of the scientific community, including those working in other fields of climate-change research outside the current Research Team's remit (e.g. IPCC climate-modelling scientists) as well as those involved in more closely-aligned research networks (e.g. Diversitas/Future Earth; EU REFRESH projects; NERC BESS Thematic Programme), and we believe that the proposal will open up important and exciting new avenues of both pure and applied research.

Publications

10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/M020843/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2019
1659751 Studentship NE/M020843/1 03/10/2015 30/09/2019 Bruno Francesco Gallo
 
Description We have discovered a mechanism by which warming can boost fish production - counter to the received wisdom
Exploitation Route These could be used by fisheries managers to project future warming scenarios
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment

URL https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/181372/increased-nutrients-help-predatory-brown-trout/
 
Description Policy briefing note
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
 
Description British Ecological Society Large Research Grant
Amount £20,000 (GBP)
Funding ID LRB16/1016 
Organisation British Ecological Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 03/2018
 
Description EU H2020
Amount € 10,000,000 (EUR)
Organisation European Commission H2020 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 02/2017 
End 02/2022
 
Description Royal Society Research Grants
Amount £13,994 (GBP)
Funding ID RG140601 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 03/2016
 
Title BioTraits2 - A global database for Metabolic Traits 
Description Biotraits is a global database of metabolic traits relevant to species invasions through interactions.The new database replaces the original global Biotraits database (Anthony I. Dell, Samraat Pawar, and Van M. Savage 2013. The thermal dependence of biological traits. Ecology 94:1205-1206. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/12-2060.1). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The latest version of this database will go public in July 2019. It will be a primary, long-term resource for institutions and individuals seeking to perform meta-analyses, and parameterize and calibrate ecosystem and global change models. 
 
Title Invertebrate data from Hengill 
Description This is a dataset of environmental data, percentage vegetation cover, total invertebrate abundance, and mean invertebrate body mass, sampled at 96 soil habitat patches in the Hengill geothermal valley, Iceland, in July 2013. The habitat patches span a temperature gradient of 7-38 degrees C, yet they occur within 2 km of each other and have similar soil moisture, pH, total carbon, and total nitrogen. Effects of soil temperature on the structure and diversity of plant and invertebrate communities using this dataset are presented in Robinson et al. (2018), published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This dataset is now publicly available via NERC's EIDC. 
URL https://doi.org/10.5285/0f074839-1630-4ccd-aa63-84d0da16b28a
 
Description Nitrogen fixation under warming 
Organisation St. Catherine University
PI Contribution Combined fieldwork and sabbatical visits
Collaborator Contribution Combined fieldwork and sabbatical visits
Impact Combined fieldwork and sabbatical visits
Start Year 2015
 
Description BES workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited talk at British Ecological Society Microbial Ecology Group.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/membership-community/special-interest-groups/microbial-ecol...
 
Description BSc projects 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact A series of BSc student projects focussed on the River Kennet recovery including the development of a biomonitoring tool and translocation experiments

We were able to communicate our research to the local stakeholders
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL https://sites.google.com/site/kennetrecovery/outreach
 
Description Blog contribution to World Wildlife Day 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The Grantham Institute asked me to contribute to their blog on environmental issues for World Wildlife Day after reading a media article about a paper I recently published in Global Change Biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://granthaminstitute.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/how-can-wildlife-adapt-to-a-warmer-world/
 
Description Gordon Research Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Session organiser and invited speaker for the Gordon Research Conference on Microbial Population Biology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.grc.org/microbial-population-biology-conference/2017/
 
Description Imperial 'All Around The World'Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Event blurb: From Antarctica to the Sahara Desert, via the summit of Everest and the bottom of the sea; Take a scientific trip of discovery around the globe and meet the researchers who work in these varied and exotic locations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Imperial Festival 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We presented a set of live freshwater organisms together with a new computer game - WebBuilder - in which participants are asked to construct a stable food web with the maximum biodiversity possible in a limited time - winners were entered on a Leader Board - participants ranged from young children upwards. Several hundred individuals played the game on the days of the Festival, with more taking it up remotely afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Imperial news piece 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Imperial media office wrote an article on a paper that I published in Global Change Biology and posted it on the main Imperial website, as well as distributing it through their newsletter and social media channels
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_23-2-2016-16-39-12
 
Description Invited talk at UCL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Invited talk at a symposium "PREDICTING BIODIVERSITY CHANGE AND IMPACTS ON ECOSYSTEM FUNCTION"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.ucl.ac.uk/cee/events/spring-symp17
 
Description Policy Briefing Note on Adaptation to Climate Change 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A policy briefing written by the research team for the Grantham Institute
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/grantham-institute/public/publications/briefing-pa...
 
Description Public exhibition of EcoBuilder game 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We demonstrated the ecobuilder (ecobuildergame.org) game, which teaches principles of metabolically driven invasions and assembly into complex communities through a video ganme, at two public exhibitions in the greater London area. Our exhibition allowed individuals to play the game - we estimated a total visitation of approx 600 individuals across from school children to adults.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://ecobuildergame.org
 
Description Public exhibition of EcoBuilder game for species invasions 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We demonstrated the ecobuilder (ecobuildergame.org) game, which teaches principles of metabolically driven invasions and assembly into complex communities through a video ganme, at two public exhibitions in the greater London area (Imperial festival and Silwood Bugs Day). Our exhibition allowed individuals to play the game - we estimated a total visitation of approx 8000 individuals across from school children to adults.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://ecobuildergame.org
 
Description Royal Society Committee 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited to address the Royal Society Global Environment Research Committee.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://royalsociety.org/about-us/committees/global-environmental-research-committee/
 
Description Visit by local school 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A local school visited us for talks on our research and a tour of the experiment mesocosm ponds and laboratories
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Water Explorer Final 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact I presented tanks of freshwater pond organisms at the final of the Water Explorer competition, an initiative aimed at conserving water use at a national level through involvement by school children. I educated the school children that made the final and their teachers on the kinds of organisms that can be found in healthy freshwater bodies. I also got the opportunity to interact with environmental representatives from HSBC Bank and Global Action Plan, which is an independent charity committed to engaging people in practical solutions to environmental and social problems.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Wild Trout Trust asked me to contribute an article on my research for publication in their Salmo magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was invited to contribute an article on temperature effects on brown trout from my research in Icelandic geothermal streams to the Wild Trout Trust's Salmo magazine. The article will be distributed nationwide to angling organisations, small businesses, nature groups, etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016