The Evolution of Fire: Preserved proteins reveal a more accurate tree of life

Athena Stenor
By Athena Stenor May 12, 2019 12:58

The Evolution of Fire: Preserved proteins reveal a more accurate tree of life

Forest fires, while harmful for individual plants, offer re­storative benefits for an ecosystem. Flammability, therefore, may be an example of group selection, a process by which a trait that may not be advantageous for individuals may become prevalent if it is beneficial for the group. Yale pro­fessor Carla Staver collaborated with researchers from Uni­versité Pierre et Marie Curie to study the individual scale of flammability trait selection with the fundamentally collec­tive nature of burning.

The researchers designed a spatial model that incorporates the idea that flammability traits offer direct fitness advantages for plant ecosystems but are disadvantageous in a non-fire-prone environment. Through this model, the researchers were able to show that fires can cause flammability traits to persist in a plant community, even if the environment does not make fires unavoidable—a phenomenon called fire feedback.

Because landscapes with intermediate dryness could be sta­ble as either fire-prone or fire-suppressing, the model showed that flammability traits could not just simply spread across a fire-suppressing landscape. The model presents two pos­sible origins of flammability traits: first, flammability traits originate in a semi-arid fire-prone patch and then spread to neighboring intermediate patches, facilitated by fire feedback; or second, the evolution of fire was driven by ancient atmo­spheric conditions, such as the oxygen-rich air of the Cre­taceous Period. The researchers thus demonstrated that fire feedback has played an undeniably significant role in the evo­lution of fire. This research has profound implications for re­gions such as the western United States, where wildfires have been raging for months now: the more fre­quent the fires, the more likely they are to happen again.

Athena Stenor
By Athena Stenor May 12, 2019 12:58
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