The functional genomics of an eco-evolutionary feedback loop: linking gene expression, trait evolution, and community dynamics


Correspondence and present address: Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, D-24306 Plön, Germany. E-mail:


Ecology Letters (2012) 15: 492–501


Feedbacks between ecological and evolutionary change may play important roles in community and ecosystem functioning, but a complete eco-evolutionary feedback loop has not been demonstrated at the community level, and we know little about molecular mechanisms underlying this kind of eco-evolutionary dynamics. In predator–prey (rotifer-alga) microcosms, cyclical changes in predator abundance generated fluctuating selection for a heritable prey defence trait, cell clumping. Predator population growth was affected more by prey evolution than by changes in prey abundance, and changes in predator abundance drove further prey evolution, completing the feedback loop. Within a predator–prey cycle, genes up-regulated as clumping declined were down-regulated as clumping increased, and vice-versa. Genes changing most in expression tended to be associated with defence or its cost. Expression patterns of individual genes differed greatly between consecutive cycles (often reversing direction), suggesting that a particular phenotype may be produced by several (perhaps many) different gene transcription pathways.