[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 16-May-2013
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Contact: Tim Beardsley
tbeardsley@aibs.org
703-674-2500 x326
American Institute of Biological Sciences

Natural 'keystone molecules' punch over their weight in ecosystems

The chemicals feature in signaling and defense, affect multiple species

Naturally occurring "keystone" molecules that have powerful behavioral effects on diverse organisms often play large but unrecognized roles in structuring ecosystems, according to a theory proposed in the June issue of BioScience. The authors of the theory, Ryan P. Ferrer of Seattle Pacific University and Richard K. Zimmer of the University of California at Los Angeles, liken such molecules to keystone species, animals or plants that may be uncommon but exert a controlling influence, through predation or in other ways. Keystone molecules function in chemical communication and defense, and likewise have dominant consequences in nature.

Ferrer and Zimmer give four examples of keystone molecules. DMSP is a simple chemical, synthesized by single-celled marine organisms, that has powerful effects on bacteria, and through its breakdown products, on the foraging of seabirds. Saxitoxin is a potent poison, also produced by marine microbes, that repels some grazing animals but can cause massive die-offs of fishes, seabirds, and marine mammals. Tetrodotoxin is another toxic keystone molecule, but produced in the skin of newts. It prompts newt larvae to hide to avoid being cannibalized and also deters some predators. Garter snakes that feed on newts, however, can accumulate the toxin in their own tissues, which in turn provides them with predator protection. Pyrrolizidine akaloids, which are synthesized by many plants, repel most plant-eaters, but are consumed by some moths, which recycle the alkaloids and convert them into a powerful volatile pheromone that attracts mates.

Because of their multifunctional effects and importance in the sea, in fresh water, and on land, keystone molecules deserve special attention from managers seeking to conserve species, Ferrer and Zimmer argue. The loss of a species that produces or captures a keystone molecule in an area could have far-reaching effects, as could the arrival of a non-native species that disrupts flows of the molecules. Future research, Ferrer and Zimmer suggest, is likely to reveal more keystone molecules and unseen webs of natural control.

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BioScience, published monthly, is the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS; http://www.aibs.org). BioScience is a forum for integrating the life sciences that publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is a meta-level organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents nearly 160 member societies and organizations. The article by Ferrer and Zimmer can be accessed ahead of print as an uncorrected proof at http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/ until early June.

The complete list of peer-reviewed articles in the June, 2013, issue of BioScience is as follows. These are now published ahead of print.

Molecules of Keystone Significance: Crucial Agents in Ecology and Resource Management.
Ryan P. Ferrer and Richard K. Zimmer

Biotic Drivers of Stream Planform: Implications for Understanding the Past and Restoring the Future.
Lina E. Polvi and Ellen Wohl

Social Systems in Habitat-specialist Reef Fishes: Key Concepts in Evolutionary Ecology.
Marian Y. L. Wong and Peter M. Buston

New Frontiers for Organismal Biology.
Dietmar Kültz, David F. Clayton, Gene E. Robinson, Craig Albertson, Hannah V. Carey, Molly E. Cummings, Ken Dewar, Scott V. Edwards, Hans A. Hofmann, Louis J. Gross, Joel G. Kingsolver, Michael J. Meaney, Barney A. Schlinger, Alexander W. Shingleton, Marla B. Sokolowski, George N. Somero, Daniel C. Stanzione, and Anne E. Todgham

Understanding Spatiotemporal Lags in Ecosystem Services to Improve Incentives.
Alexander K. Fremier, Fabrice A. J. DeClerck, Nilsa A. Bosque-Pérez, Natalia Estrada Carmona, Renée Hill, Taylor Joyal, Levi Keesecker, P. Zion Klos, Alejandra Martínez-Salinas, Ryan Niemeyer, Andre Sanfiorenzo, Kristen Welsh, and J. D. Wulfhorst

The Ethics of Data Sharing and Reuse in Biology.
Clifford S. Duke and John H. Porter

Efficient Analysis of Dose–time–response Assays.
Ann Yellowlees, Chris S. LeButt, Karie J. Hirst, Peter C. Fusco, and Kelly J. Fleetwood



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