Environmental regulation in a network of simulated microbial ecosystems

Hywel T. Williams, Timothy M. Lenton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


The Earth possesses a number of regulatory feedback mechanisms involving life. In the absence of a population of competing biospheres, it has proved hard to find a robust evolutionary mechanism that would generate environmental regulation. It has been suggested that regulation must require altruistic environmental alterations by organisms and, therefore, would be evolutionarily unstable. This need not be the case if organisms alter the environment as a selectively neutral by-product of their metabolism, as in the majority of biogeochemical reactions, but a question then arises: Why should the combined by-product effects of the biota have a stabilizing, rather than destabilizing, influence on the environment? Under certain conditions, selection acting above the level of the individual can be an effective adaptive force. Here we present an evolutionary simulation model in which environmental regulation involving higher-level selection robustly emerges in a network of interconnected microbial ecosystems. Spatial structure creates conditions for a limited form of higher-level selection to act on the collective environment-altering properties of local communities. Local communities that improve their environmental conditions achieve larger populations and are better colonizers of available space, whereas local communities that degrade their environment shrink and become susceptible to invasion. The spread of environment-improving communities alters the global environment toward the optimal conditions for growth and tends to regulate against external perturbations. This work suggests a mechanism for environmental regulation that is consistent with evolutionary theory.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10432-10437
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)
Issue number30
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2008

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