Date of Award:

5-2010

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Biology

Advisor/Chair:

Michael E. Pfrender

Abstract

The hierarchy of biological organization, from molecules to ecosystems, describes the relationships among various biological systems. Of particular interest is assessing how the factors that primarily determine the nature of one hierarchical level also have transcendent qualities that affect the ecology and evolution of higher hierarchical levels. The goal of this dissertation was to use a bottom-up approach to examine the transcendent effects of two factors that strongly determine the nature of their associated level of biological organization. The first, phenotypic plasticity, is a primary factor that determines the phenotype of an individual. The second factor, genetic diversity, largely determines the phenotypic distributions associated with populations. Controlled laboratory experiments on taxa from a freshwater tri-trophic food web were employed to examine the transcendent effects of phenotypic plasticity and genetic diversity on the biological hierarchy because relationships between individuals and populations from different trophic levels are well documented for numerous freshwater species. The results show that phenotypic plasticity can induce changes in population means and variances that promote population persistence and evolvability, and that plasticity provides a mechanistic explanation of community stability in response to changing environments. Similarly, genetic diversity may act as a signal that induces phenotypic plasticity in individuals, modulates community richness and ecosystem properties, and suggests a potential mechanism for the changes in biodiversity. Thus, results from this dissertation show that plasticity and genetic variation can shape the attributes of other biological groups higher in the biological hierarchy, and, in some cases, may also provide a mechanistic explanation for variability observed in higher levels of the biological hierarchy. These results highlight the importance of integrating traditionally disparate biological disciplines and may help to unify biology as a field.

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