Project groups

RESEARCH ACTIVITY 8: ADAPTATION AND CLIMATE

Involved project leaders:
 BiK-F:
S. Pauls, M. Pfenninger, I. Schmitt, M. Thines. — GU: W. Brüggemann, I. Ebersberger, J. Oehlmann, M. Plath SGN: A. Hundsdörfer (Dresden), C. Nowak (Gelnhausen), M. Päckert (Dresden), C. Printzen (Frankfurt), D. Russell (Görlitz). ECT (Oekotoxikologie GmbH): J. Römbke. Uni Landau: K. Schwenk.

One of the key concerns in biodiversity research is whether organisms will be able to adjust to therapid pace of anthropogenic climate change. In RA Adaptation and Climate, we address the issue of evolutionary and phenotypic adaptation at the level of individuals, populations, species, and ecological communities. We have set up this new research activity at Senckenberg during the past 5 years by establishing suitable experimental systems. RA 8 differs from other RAs at Senckenberg in having a strong focus on research involving experimentation under controlled conditions (e.g., in terrestrial model ecosystems), and development of genetics and genomics tools to address adaptation and the adaptive potential of organisms. Researchers in RA 8 are currently gaining recognition in the international research community, indicated by frequently cited papers and invited reviews on the topic. Specific strengths of RA 8 include conceptual and methodological competence in evolutionary ecology, evolutionary and ecological genomics and molecular genetics.
Close collaboration exist with RA 7 Biodiversity Dynamics and Climate, e.g. in developing approaches integrating high-throughput molecular community data and ecological community analysis, or by generating tree ecophysiological data that can be used to improve dynamic vegetation models, and with RA 6 Evolution and Climate, e.g., in addressing questions in niche evolution and cryptic diversity evolution. Extensive experimental research in mesocosms and field plots is possible because of collaborations with non-university partners, such as ECT Ökotoxikologie GmbH or Hessen Forst, and (inter-)national university partners. The research direction of RA 4.8 constitutes a new development at Senckenberg that was initiated with LOEWE BiK-F. Therefore, our profile is partially based on preexisting expertise at Senckenberg and Goethe University Frankfurt, and was modified and greatly expanded in 2010 through the addition of three new LOEWE BiK-F professorships. RA 8 profits from existing cooperation with Goethe University Frankfurt, Department of Biological Sciences, the Frankfurt Center for scientific computing LOEWE CSC (http://csc.uni-frankfurt.de/), Frankfurt Cloud Computing (http://www.frankfurt-cloud.com), and the recently funded LOEWE Schwerpunktprogramm Integrative Pilzforschung (http://www.integrative-pilzforschung.de).
The interaction of phenotypes of individuals with their biotic and abiotic environment determines an organism’s evolutionary fitness and drives the adaptation of populations to their respective environments. Global climate change is predicted to drastically alter the abiotic conditions on earth, thus changing the fitness landscape for most species and triggering evolutionary responses. To understand the interaction between biodiversity and climate, it is thus mandatory to study evolutionary adaptation and its determining factors and processes. We study biological processes that result from ecological or ecophysiological adaptation (acclimatization), from rapid selection within a few generations, and from species dynamics within communities.
To advance our understanding in these areas, we address the following key questions:
1. How do populations and species cope with climate change through behavioral plasticity, physiological flexibility and evolutionary adaptations?
Current technological developments in genomics and computational biology allow studying evolutionary processes in unprecedented detail. We aim to understand the genomic and non-genomic changes responsible for the adaptation of natural populations to their experienced climate. A particular focus is on exploring novel ways of integrating field data, data from ecological experiments, molecular genomics, and biodiversity informatics.
2. How does climate influence the spatial and temporal distribution of genetic/genomic diversity?
The evolutionary potential for adaptation in future generations depends on the genetic variation of current populations. The potential to show adaptive evolutionary shifts in (heritable) fitness-related traits, such as life history traits or competitive abilities, determines a given population’s ability to withstand rapid ecological change. Understanding the processes that drive the spatio-temporal distribution of neutral and functional genetic diversity is, therefore, essential if we are to accurately predict the outcome of global climate change.
3. How does climate change alter the composition and function of ecological communities?
The impact of climate change differs across taxa. Thus, climate change will alter species interactions and the composition and function of ecological communities. We manipulate experimental ecosystems to understand the complex mechanisms affecting ecological communities. Understanding climate effects on communities is pivotal for the prediction, management and mitigation of global climate change. Moreover, climate change is not the only factor that exerts pressure on species and communities, but it interacts with other anthropogenic stressors. In this context, we are particularly interested in understanding interaction effects of pesticides and climatic parameters. 
To achieve these goals, we study natural populations along climatic gradients (as surrogates for climate change), closely related species that occur in different climates, model organisms in multiplex stress field and laboratory experiments under static or dynamic temperature regimes, taxa that have experienced different climates over the past decades and that are preserved in biological archives, such as lake sediment cores, or that can be retrieved from museum collections.