genetic diversity

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One species, 20 genotypes, 3,808 plants and a plague of voles: Study reveals new benefits of genetic diversity

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

If you’re designing an ambitious field experiment that involves more than 3,800 plants and 240 deer cages, ecologist John Parker has some words of wisdom for you: beware of the unexpected. Beware of meadow voles. Parker is a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater, Maryland. He studies the relationship between plants and the herbivores that eat them.

John Parker tends to one of his plants in the field.

Ecologist John Parker examines one of his plants in the field. Photo: Alex Smith

In a recent paper published in Ecology Letters, Parker chronicles the ups, downs and findings of a study investigating the links between genetic diversity in plants and herbivory. “Most people think about biodiversity in terms of species diversity, where you have a rich variety of plants and animals living in an ecosystem,” explains Parker. “I’m interested in exploring the importance of genetic diversity within a species.” Scientists have recently discovered that plants can benefit from growing in genetically-rich polycultures, where neighboring plants of the same species have different genotypes. Parker’s new research shows that these benefits include better protection against hungry herbivores like deer and voles.
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