EDITOR'S CHOICE: Application of genetic diversity–ecosystem function research to ecological restoration



  1. Three common goals for restoration are (i) rapid plant establishment, (ii) long-term plant persistence and (iii) restoration of functioning ecosystems. Restoration practitioners often use cultivars optimized for rapid plant establishment under highly disturbed conditions to achieve the first goal; locally adapted genotypes are championed for the second because they can be well suited for local environmental conditions. Restoring functioning ecosystems is considered a loftier goal that practitioners struggle to achieve because we lack proven techniques.
  2. Similar to the demonstrated benefits of species, functional and phylogenetic diversity for ecosystem functions (EFs), recent genetic diversity (GD)–ecosystem function (EF) experiments have shown that increases in plant GD can positively influence many different EFs. Would the introduction of diverse plant genotypes of a given species into a restoration enhance ecosystem functioning and the evolutionary potential of restored populations?
  3. In this review, we first examine three propagule-sourcing approaches: cultivar, local adaptation and GD. Next, we raise questions that if addressed, could help practitioners implement a GD approach in restoration: (i) How might the selection, relatedness and arrangement of genotypes be optimized to restore functioning ecosystems, (ii) How do traits that affect an EF relate to neutral or adaptive diversity, more common measures of GD and (iii) at which spatial and temporal scales does GD influence EFs in restorations?
  4. Synthesis and applications. Although each propagule-sourcing approach may be best suited for a particular restoration goal, each approach may simultaneously benefit other goals. Yet cultivars and locally adapted populations that have experienced artificial and/or natural selection may not possess the levels of diversity that will confer expected benefits to different ecosystem functions. Future research should determine the relative value of each approach (or a combination of approaches) for simultaneously achieving multiple restoration goals. Restoration experiments, where plant genetic diversity (GD) is manipulated and monitored over scales relevant to restoration, could reveal the true promise of a GD approach to restoration.