Nico Boon on Preserving Functional Stability of an Ecosystem

Fast Moving Front Commentary, July 2011

Nico Boon

Article: Initial community evenness favours functionality under selective stress

Authors: Wittebolle, L;Marzorati, M;Clement, L;Balloi, A;Daffonchio, D;Heylen, K;De Vos, P;Verstraete, W;Boon, N
Journal: NATURE, 458 (7238): 623-626, APR 2, 2009
Addresses: Univ Ghent, Lab Microbial Ecol & Technol, LabMET, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium.
Univ Ghent, Lab Microbial Ecol & Technol, LabMET, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium.
(Addresses have been truncated)

Nico Boon talks with and answers a few questions about this month's Fast Moving Fronts paper in the field of Multidisciplinary.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

Considering the current global biodiversity crisis, the biodiversity-stability relationship and the effect of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning have become major topics in ecology. The majority of studies of biodiversity-functioning and biodiversity-stability theory have examined predominantly richness, while we showed that initial community evenness is another key factor in preserving functional stability of an ecosystem.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

The research is both a new discovery and a synthesis of knowledge. It is part of a project having as a final objective the understanding of the major factors necessary to steer and engineer microbial communities to obtain stable and reliable biotechnological processes, which are needed in environmental and medical sciences.

"Current molecular techniques could be used to predict ecosystem function failure and to manage biotechnological systems with mixed microbial communities for a long-standing performance."

It has been stated that, for the next decades, the microbial ecologists and environmental microbiologists have to focus on microbial resource management (MRM) to properly manage complex microbial systems. They should address a new mindset based on well-documented concepts, reliable tools, and a set of default values.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

Biodiversity is a complex term that includes taxonomic, functional, spatial, and temporal aspects of organismic diversity, with species richness (the number of species) and evenness (the relative abundance of species) considered among the most important measures. Using experimental microcosms with bacterial communities, we showed that initial community evenness is a key factor in preserving the functional stability of an ecosystem.

In particular, it demonstrated that a community must have an even distribution among its functional redundant members if it is to respond rapidly to selective stress. In fact, when an ecosystem function in a highly uneven community depends strongly on the dominant species, the functional stability is endangered by environmental fluctuations. In other words, a too-strong selection that leads to the dominance of one or a few species will not guarantee a good-performing ecosystem.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

Our research group, the Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and Technology (LabMET) at Ghent University, Belgium, is specialized in the study and application of mixed microbial cultures or communities. A microbial community consists of several populations which each represent a functional biological entity and thus a diverse metabolic capacity. The assemblage of these biological entities represents—when properly organized—a powerful resource. LabMET focuses on the optimal management of these microbial resources by MRM, enabling us to develop novel processes to improve our environment or human health in the most sustainable way.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

Nowadays, we are at a very important crossroad for microbial ecology wherein through the development of relationships between technologies and theories we will be able to elucidate the complexities of biodiversity within communities. This will allow the establishment of links between microbial community identification (working as whole entities) and their metabolic function.

The incorporation of the new MRM findings, like in this paper, will bring about an interesting novelty in order to define default values for different environments, conditions, and values that will act as yardsticks for the actual management of these complex ecosystems.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

This finding can have important implications and new opportunities for scientists, engineers, and even policy makers working in domains such as applied and fundamental environmental sciences, food science, and even medical microbiology. Current molecular techniques could be used to predict ecosystem function failure and to manage biotechnological systems with mixed microbial communities for a long-standing performance.End

Nico Boon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and Technology (LabMET)
Faculty of Bioscience Engineering
Ghent University
Ghent, Belgium



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