Environmental Biology Depends on Functions
Sunnuntai 24.2.2019 klo 12:14 - Mikko Nikinmaa
The difference between a stone and an organism is function. A stone could have exactly the same DNA molecules as an organism, but without function it would be just a stone. For evolution and heritability the organisms need to reproduce; there can only be environmental effects on organisms, if the functions are affected. Consequently, any ecological response require functional changes. For example, climate change can only influence ecosystem response via the effects of temperature on organismal function.
The study of functions is physiology. In view of the above, it is very surprising that when one studies the functional responses that determine, how environmental changes affect ecosystem function, they are not considered to be of "general interest". In contrast, studies, which look at species changes observed or changes in the genetic composition of populations without trying to understand the underlying functional mechanism are of "general interest". The reason for this cannot be anything biological, but related to the number of scientists working in the field. The number of scientists studying the functional environmental responses, i.e. ecophysiology, is very small, whereas environmental ecology, ecological and evolutionary genetics are very popular fields of biology. I am afraid that there are two major reasons for this. First, it appears that scientist are crowding in popular fields, whereby even if a field is potentially important, but not very popular to start with, it remains small. Second, it appears that the tedious laboratory work, which is needed for studying functional responses, is keeping people from doing the difficult physiological work. In physiology any determination is difficult and requires that the scientist is much more careful and accurate than in many simple ecological observations. Further, to successfully work in environmental pysiology, one needs to have good knowledge both of ecology and of animal physiology, i.e. more or less double the understanding which is common, if only ecological approach is utilized.
However, to study the responses of organisms to environmental changes an environmental contamination, physiological responses need to be studied. The common recent approach determining only mRNA level (quantitative PCR or RNA sequencing) does not say anything of the functional responses unless the transcriptional changes can be tied to protein function. It is completely plausible that the transcript is not translated to functional protein. If the transcript information is said to show functional responses, it is like saying: since we have increased the number of instuction books of how to build a machine, the amount of product the machine makes has increased.