Populations can respond to environmental change over tens or hundreds of generations by shifts in phenotype that can be the result of a sustained physiological response, evolutionary (genetic) change, shifts in community composition, or some combination of these factors. Microbes evolve on human timescales, and evolution may contribute to marine phytoplankton responses to global change over the coming decades. However, it is still unknown whether evolutionary responses are likely to contribute significantly to phenotypic change in marine microbial communities under high pCO2 regimes or other aspects of global change. Recent work by Müller et al. (2010) highlights that long-term responses of marine microbes to global change must be empirically measured and the underlying cause of changes in phenotype explained. Here, I briefly discuss how tools from experimental microbial evolution may be used to detect and measure evolutionary responses in marine phytoplankton grown in high CO2 environments and other environments of interest. I outline why the particular biology of marine microbes makes conventional experimental evolution challenging right now and make a case that marine microbes are good candidates for the development of new model systems in experimental evolution. I suggest that “black box” frameworks that focus on partitioning phenotypic change, such as the Price equation, may be useful in cases where direct measurements of evolutionary responses alone are difficult, and that such approaches could be used to test hypotheses about the underlying causes of phenotypic shifts in marine microbe communities responding to global change.
Collins, S., 2010. Comment on ”Effects of long-term high CO2 exposure on two species of coccolithophore” by Müller et al. (2010). Biogeosciences 7:2199-2202. Article.