Evolving Meta-Ecosystems (EvoME) Institute

photo by Heidi Golden

The EvoME Institute works across all major disciplines of biology to understand how adaptive evolution maintains and shapes meta-ecosystems in response to climate change. A meta-ecosystem refers to a broader perspective of a landscape—one that considers not just the interactions among species with a single environment, but also more complex interconnections of species, nutrients, and energy among adjacent ecosystems.

By integrating research from genes to meta-ecosystems, EvoME examines how each biological level interacts with the others, and advances our understanding of eco-evolutionary theory. EvoME strives to understand how ecology and evolution interact across space and time to structure populations, communities, and the physical environment. Our work also considers how meta-ecosystem resilience may be maintained by evolving populations of individual species.

Dr. Heidi Golden holds an arctic greyling, a dark grey fish roughly a foot long

Dr. Heidi Golden holds an Arctic grayling from lower Oksrukuyik Creek, Alaska. / photo by Mark Urban

Until recently, the prevailing understanding has been that the resilience of ecosystems and meta-ecosystems can be understood without considering evolution. However, increasing evidence indicates that evolutionary adaptation can occur rapidly, sometimes within only a few generations. Therefore, we need to understand how joint ecological and evolutionary dynamics determine the functioning of ecosystems across landscapes.

We address fundamental questions in genomics, molecular genetics, evolution, physiology, behavior, population and community ecology, and ecosystem biology. Although we could ask these questions about any ecosystem, we focus our research on the Arctic stream-riparian meta-ecosystem because of its ideal qualities for generating new insights. This system has a small and manageable number of dominant species, allows us to leverage our team’s combined experience and long-term research efforts in the region, and is in a region warming faster than anywhere else on Earth.

Dr. Linda Deegan and Kathleen Lewis stand knee-deep in a stream, installing netting for research

Dr. Linda Deegan and Kathleen Lewis set fish traps to assess fish species traits for the Kuparuk River Arctic grayling population. / photo by Heidi Golden

We conduct research along a latitudinal gradient in northern Alaska, evaluating key species’ current adaptability—including populations living in Arctic hot springs. We examine the genetic contribution of species traits by raising organisms from different environments within common environments. Together, these approaches could provide insight into the genetic tools that may enable populations to deal with a warmer Arctic. We conduct meta-ecosystem experiments in river and riparian systems in which both the inclusion or exclusion of leaf litter and insects will be manipulated in sections of study streams to understand how future changes may affect the resilience of this meta-ecosystem as the Arctic warms.

EvoME will synthesize this information with powerful whole-genome assessments and numerical modeling tools that together will allow us to better understand the spatial variability and genetic basis of key traits, as well as their influence on the form and function of current and future ecosystems and meta-ecosystems. In this way, EvoME will contribute to a broader understanding of the combined ecological and evolutionary responses of Earth’s meta-ecosystems to climate change, including the mechanisms through which those responses occur, enabling us to better predict them in the future.