How a declining environment affects populations | 3/3/2017 | Staff
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Stable ecosystems occasionally experience events that cause widespread death—for example, bacteria in the human gut may be wiped out by antibiotics, or ocean life may be depleted by overfishing. A new study from MIT physicists reveals how these events affect dynamics between different species within a community.

In their studies, performed in bacteria, the researchers found that a species with a small population size under normal conditions can increase in abundance as conditions deteriorate. These findings are consistent with a theoretical model that had been previously developed but has been difficult to test in larger organisms.

Species - Community - Increase - Mortality - Effect

"For a single species within a complex community, an increase in mortality doesn't necessarily mean that the net effect is that you're going to be harmed. It could be that although the mortality itself is not good for you, the fact that your competitor species are also experiencing an increase in mortality, and they may be more sensitive to it than you are, means that you could do better," says Jeff Gore, an MIT associate professor of physics and the senior author of the study.

The findings in bacteria may also be applicable to larger organisms in real-world populations, which are much more difficult to study because it is usually impossible to control the conditions of the experiment the way researchers can with bacteria growing in a test tube.

Communities - Environments - Experiments - Whereas - Context

"We think that this may be happening in complex communities in natural environments, but it's hard to do the experiments that are necessary to really nail it down. Whereas in the context of the lab, we can make very clear measurements where you see this effect in a very obvious way," Gore says.

Clare Abreu, an MIT graduate student, is the lead author of the study, which appeared in Nature Communications on May 9. Vilhelm Andersen Woltz, an MIT undergraduate,...
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