One can only hope that one day, we will be able to evaluate how the ecological complexity surrounding natural populations affects their ability to adapt. This is more like a long term quest than a simple scientific aim. Many steps are heading in the right direction. This paper by Monroe and colleagues (2021) is one of them.
Many ecological and genetic mechanisms shape the evolutionary potential of phenotypic trait variation and many of them involve environmental heterogeneity (Pujol et al 2018). To date, we cannot look into these ecological and genetic mechanisms without oversimplifying their effects. We often look into trait variation one trait at a time albeit the variation of multiple phenotypic traits is often linked at the genetic or environmental level. As a consequence, we put our conclusions at risk by not accounting for the reciprocal impacts of trait changes upon each other (Teplitsky et al 2014). We also usually restrict the study of a continuous gradient of environmental conditions to a few conditions because it would otherwise be impossible to model its environmental effect. As a consequence, we miss the full picture of the continuous often nonlinear phenotypic plastic response. Whether the trait undergo threshold effect changes thereby remains obscured to us. Collectively, these issues impede our ability to understand how selection shapes the ecological strategy of organisms under variable environments.
In this paper, Monroe and colleagues (2021) propose an original approach that raised to these two challenges. They analysed phenotypic plastic changes in response to a continuous environment in a multidimensional trait space, namely the response of Brachypodium plant developmental and physiological traits to a continuous gradient of soil moisture. They used dry down experimental treatments to produce the continuous soil moisture gradient and compared the plant capacity to use water between annual B. distachyon and perennial B. sylvaticum. Their results revealed the best mathematical functions that model the nonlinear curvature of the continuous plastic response of Brachypodium plants. This work reinforces our view that nonlinear plastic responses can result in greater or lesser trait values at any stage of the environmental gradient that were unexpected on the basis of linear predictors (Gienapp and Brommer 2014). Their findings also imply that different threshold responses characterize different genotypes. These could otherwise have been missed by a classical approach. By shedding light on unforeseen interactions between traits that make their correlation vary along the nonlinear response, they were able to describe more accurately Brachypodium ecological strategies and the changes in evolutionary constraints along the soil moisture gradient.
Their empirical approach allows to test what environmental conditions maximises the opportunity for selection to shape trait variation. For example, it revealed unforeseen divergence in potentially adaptive mechanisms or life history strategies – and not just trait values – between annual and perennial species of Brachypodium. Behind every environmental variation of the constraints to the future evolutionary change of multiple traits, we can expect that the evolutionary history of the populations shaped their trait genetic correlations. Investigating the nonlinear signature of adaptive evolution across continuous environments will get us into uncharted territory.
Our ability to predict the adaptive potential of species is limited. With their approach of continuous environmental gradients beyond linearity, Monroe and collaborators (2021) improve our understanding of plant phenotypic responses and open a brand new range of exciting developments. As they mention: "the opportunity for scaling up" their approach is big. To illustrate this prospect, I can easily think of an example: the quantitative genetic random regression model. This model allows to use any degree of genetic relatedness in a wild population to estimate the genetic variation of phenotypic plastic reaction norms (Nussey et al 2007, Pujol and Galaud 2013). However, in this approach, only a few modalities of the environmental gradient are used to model nonlinear phenotypic plastic responses. From there, it is rather intuitive. Combining the best of these two approaches (continuity of genetic relatedness in the wild & continuity of environmental gradient in experiments) could open ground breaking new perspectives in research.
Gienapp P. & J.E. Brommer. 2014. Evolutionary dynamics in response to climate change. In: Charmentier A, Garant D, Kruuk LEB, editors. Quantitative genetics in the wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford. pp. 254–273. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674237.003.0015
Monroe, J. G., Cai, H., and Des Marais, D. L. (2020). Trait plasticity and covariance along a continuous soil moisture gradient. bioRxiv, 2020.02.17.952853, ver. 5 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Evol Biol. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.17.952853
Pujol et al. (2018). The missing response to selection in the wild. Trends in ecology & evolution, 33(5), 337-346. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2018.02.007
Pujol, B., and Galaud, J. P. (2013). A practical guide to quantifying the effect of genes underlying adaptation in a mixed genomics and evolutionary ecology approach. Botany Letters, 160(3-4), 197-204. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/12538078.2013.799045
Nussey, D. H., Wilson, A. J., and Brommer, J. E. (2007). The evolutionary ecology of individual phenotypic plasticity in wild populations. Journal of evolutionary biology, 20(3), 831-844. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1420-9101.2007.01300.x
Teplitsky et al. (2014). Assessing multivariate constraints to evolution across ten long-term avian studies. PLoS One, 9(3), e90444. doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090444