Cities change the way life evolves

O urbanization is increasingly transforming rural and natural environments in ways that Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity have never experienced before. These changes are altering the evolution of life, according to a study published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

The work, led by evolutionary biologists from University of Toronto Mississauga (Canada), analyzed whether a parallel evolution is taking place in cities around the world, thanks to the Global Urban Evolution Project (GLUE).

Urbanization causes many white clover plants around the world to produce fewer chemicals

A total of 287 scientists collected data in 160 cities in 26 countries. They collected 110,019 plant samples from white clover (trifolium repens) –a cosmopolitan and perennial plant with a wide distribution– of 6,169 populations in their cities and nearby rural areas. Also participating in the study University of Seville it’s from Almería. However, in Spain there are no study sites, the closest collection was Lisbon in Portugal.

“Adaptation itself is neither positive nor negative, it is simply a process that occurs as an adaptive response of the species to a stimulus. In this case, the increase in urbanization can bring changes such as, for example, an increase in impermeable surfaces, changes in temperature or a decrease in the presence of herbivores”, he tells SINC. José Raul Romanoa researcher from the University of Almería who, together with Miriam Munoz Rojasfrom the University of Seville collected samples for the study.

In particular, urbanization causes many white clover plants around the world to produce less chemical substance. “Decrease production of hydrogen cyanide (HCN), an anti-herbivore chemical defense”, says Román.

From this perspective, cities are a dominant force driving the evolution of life on a global scale. From Toronto to Tokyo, from Melbourne to Munich, white clover often evolves in direct response to environmental changes taking place in urban environments.

“This knowledge can help to conserve some of the most vulnerable species on Earth, mitigate the impacts of pests and diseases, improve human well-being and contribute to the understanding of evolutionary processes”, defends the scientist.

Significant differences between rural and urban environments

The results show that the probability of a plant producing hydrogen cyanide increased by an average of 44% in city centers, where the lowest values ​​were found, for the more rural environment. Furthermore, in 62 of the 160 cities studied, HCN production was less common in urban settings than in rural settings.

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On the other hand, genome study revealed that this evolution in phenotypic traits due to urbanization is explained by adaptive evolution. “The results show that this leads to environmental changes that can lead to rapid evolutionary adaptations on a global scale,” says the expert.

The results demonstrate that urbanization leads to environmental changes that can lead to rapid evolutionary adaptations on a global scale.

White clover populations are polymorphic for the production of hydrogen cyanide, a chemical defense antiherbivores that appear after damage to their tissues. This means that there are cyanogenic populations, which produce this compound, while it is absent in non-cyanogenic genotypes. This fact made it possible to study the transition from one genotype to another.

University of Toronto Mississauga biology professors Rob Ness and Marc Johnson and UTM doctoral student James Santangelo.  /Nick Iwanyshyn

University of Toronto Mississauga biology professors Rob Ness and Marc Johnson and UTM doctoral student James Santangelo. /Nick Iwanyshyn

An unprecedented global collaboration

The research created a huge dataset that will be studied for years, say its authors. “Our employees recognized the importance of this project. There has never been a field study of evolution on this scale, nor a global work on how urbanization influences evolution. It would have been impossible to do it without our group of collaborators”, emphasizes Marc TJ Johnsonco-author and researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

The team was split evenly between women and men and included not only established researchers but also students of all levels and from every inhabited continent in the world.

Johnson also classifies the model project as inclusive science. The team was split evenly between women and men and included not only established researchers but also students of all levels and from every inhabited continent in the world.

The Spanish team did not participate in the coordination of the work, but Muñoz Rojas coordinates a global networkof which Román is also a member, to know the effect of the changes in land use in microbial populations around the world.

“It is necessary to mobilize a large amount of resources, both personal and economic, as well as to contact many groups, to establish very well-designed and defined protocols so that all participants can carry out the sampling”, explains the researcher from the University of Almeria.

Reference:

James S. Santangelo et al. “Global urban environmental changes drive adaptation at white clover”. Science

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