Synthesis: “Predicting responses to contemporary environmental change using evolutionary response architectures”

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Rachael A. Bay, Noah Rose, Rowan Barrett, Louis Bernatchez, Cameron K. Ghalambor, Jesse R. Lasky, Rachel B. Brem, Stephen R. Palumbi, and Peter Ralph

“Response architecture” for predicting rapid adaptation with population genomics

Predicting extinction and survival on a changing planet

Rapid changes to the Earth’s environment, from climate warming and ocean acidification to agricultural and urban development, could threaten many species of plants and animals with extinction in the near future. These species have adapted via natural selection to their specific environmental conditions over thousands of years, but they are now confronted with stressful new environments, raising the question of whether these species can rapidly adapt to these new conditions, and whether this adaptation can help prevent extinction.

Recent advances in genome sequencing technology are allowing researchers to pinpoint the genetic causes, or “genomic architecture,” of environmental adaptation with greater accuracy. These advances led the authors of a new research synthesis appearing in The American Naturalist to wonder if a better understanding of the genetic basis of adaptation can help researchers predict whether species can adapt to rapid environmental change. They assembled a panel of experts in both the theory and empirical study of rapid adaptation at the 2016 meeting of the American Society of Naturalists to discuss this question and came to the conclusion that a better understanding of genomic architecture alone isn’t enough to predict adaptive responses.

Instead the authors draw on a growing body of work that shows that many different processes contribute to survival in changing environments to propose that researchers wishing to predict adaptive responses investigate what they term the evolutionary “response architecture.” This response architecture includes not just the genetic causes of adaptation, but also the spatial distribution and abundance of the adaptive genetic variants, the ability of both adapted and non-adapted organisms to reproduce and repopulate after environmental crises, and the ability of organisms to physiologically respond to environmental change without changes in their genetic makeup. Each of these phenomena can contribute to a species avoiding extinction, and each species will have a different response architecture leading to a different way of adapting to rapid environmental change. Researchers hoping to understand the risks of environmental change and prevent the worst outcomes may find solutions by putting together these different pieces of the puzzle of adaptation. Read the Article