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Marine microbiology
TMS Starting Grant Project SIMPLEX

Disentangling Ecosystem Complexity through TMS Starting Grant Project

Can simple laws of microbial ecology help us understand large-scale patterns of the biosphere? Does this guide us towards a theory of ecosystem complexity? In SIMPLEX, we investigate how ecosystems are organized, focusing in particular on the question whether trade-offs between competitive and defensive strategies may underly complexity emerging at different scales.

Schematic of scales that SIMPLEX aims to unify through common underlying principle
SIMPLEX aims to better understand the role of trade-offs in shaping ecosystems across scales. The ultimate goal is a theory based on underlying principle that explains a wide range of phenomena, ranging from intra-species diversity on the micro-scale to large-scale biomass scaling laws. Various methods are combined in this project, including laboratory experiments to study micro-scale processes, in-silico simulations to grasp complexity on the meso-scale, and analytical modeling combined with meta-data analayses to study large-scale phenomena.
Photo:
Selina Våge

The observable world is a reflection of underlying laws of nature, which science aims to understand. Remarkably, there is a strong mismatch between the perceived complexity of nature and the simplicity of underlying laws. This is nicely illustrated in physics, with hugely complex phenomena such as galaxies and behaviour of particles can be explained through simple and universal laws of nature.

Finding universal laws in biology has prooven difficult, arguably since biology adds an utter level of complexity to the physical world. Ecosystem functioning in particular is challenging to understand as it is depends on molecular processes at the (intra-) cellular level and large-scale processes such as ocean circulation. It thus integrates chemistry with physics, with biology acting as a bridge in between. Human welfare, economy and politics are also linked to ecosystem functions through management of recources, and one of the most pressing issues of global health today, resistance in microbial pathogens against antibiotics, is driven by antagonistic co-evolution, a process fundamental for generating biodiversity and complexity in natural ecosystems. Both scientific and societal stakes for better understanding ecosystem function are thus high, motivating our research.

SIMPLEX is designed to increase the theoretical understanding of ecosystem complexity. We do this through four main objectives:

  1. Using laboratory experiments, we quantify concepts from microbial ecology (in particular trade-offs between competitive and defensive strategies), which can explain intra-species diversity (micro-scale phenomena)
  2. We encode these concepts in evolutionary algorithms and test their potential to lead to complex food webs (meso-scale phenomena)
  3. We apply these concepts to global meta-data and test their potential to explain different expressions of biomass-productivity scaling laws in nature (large-scale phenomena).
  4. We combine learnings from objectives 1)-3) to corroborate the potential of a cross-scale, trade-off based theory of ecosystem complexity.

The project is driven through collaboration of the following people:

Fully employed through SIMPLEX (as sub-group of the marine microbiology Group at UiB):

  • PhD student Jesslyn Tendra
  • PhD student Lotta Landor
  • Post-doctoral research fellow (tba)
  • Coordinator Selina Våge

Other internal collaborators (from the marine microbiology Group and NORCE):

  • Gunnar Bratbak
  • Aud Larsen
  • Ruth-Anne Sandaa
  • Evy Foss Skjoldal
  • Hilde Stabell
  • Elzbieta Kurdsziel Petelenz
  • Bernadette Pree
  • Tatiana Tsagaraki

External collaborators:

  • Swami Iyer (University of Massachuesttes Boston)
  • David Talmy (University of Tennesse)
  • Nigel Goldenfeld (University of Illinois)
  • Hong-Yan Shih (University of Illinois)
  • Nick Record (Bigelow Laboratory of Ocean Sciences)
  • Andy Visser (Denish Technical University)
  • Luiza Anghelutha (University of Oslo)

SIMPLEX is funded with 15mio NOK as a Starting Grant Project by the Trond Mohn Foundation (TMS) and University of Bergen, lasting for four years from 2019 to 2023.