Skip to content Skip to navigation

Biodiversity Study Indicates Large and Small Organisms React Similarly to Environment

October 9, 2019

Bacteria and starfish have more in common than people might think.

A new study published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences shows that both single-celled (microbes) and multi-celled organisms (every other living thing) in marine lakes share similar reactions to changes in their environment.

“Significant transitions in environmental factors such as oxygen concentration and salinity drive large-scale change in the communities of most, if not all, marine organisms,” lead author Giovanni Rapacciuolo said.

Rapacciuolo worked with UC Merced professors Michael Dawson and Michael Beman when he was a postdoc in Dawson’s lab. They wanted to understand whether organisms respond similarly to the same environmental changes. This will help predict the influence of environmental change on organisms that are hard to see or have yet to be described, he said.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity Program, designed to understand the creation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity to fill in knowledge gaps. The NSF hopes these many studies will lead to significant progress in agriculture, fuel, manufacturing and health.

The UC Merced team wanted to know if different kinds of life follow the same rules, and, in this case, the answer is yes.

“We found a striking similarity between large and small organisms,” Beman said. “The total number of species is different, but the way they change in response to the environment is similar. They seem to be affected in a similar way.”

Starting in 2011, the researchers focused on marine lakes in Palau, gathering and analyzing data on all of the life forms living in the lakes. Along with physical and chemical measurements, these records capture patterns of environmental change and could help scientists understand how changes will affect other marine ecosystems and life in general.

Dawson is an evolutionary molecular biologist and Beman is a microbial ecologist, both with the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences in the School of Natural Sciences . Rapacciuolo, a biodiversity data scientist, former postdoc Lauren Sheibelhut, a geneticist, and many others have worked with them to study the biodiversity in Palau’s marine lakes for many years as part of this program.

“The study brought together researchers from around the globe with so many different interests and perspectives,” Dawson said. “This has been a real collaborative effort.”