From genes to ecosystems: The genetic basis of condensed tannins and their role in nutrient regulation in a Populus model system

Jennifer A. Schweitzer, Michael D. Madritch, Joseph K. Bailey, Carri J. Leroy, Dylan G. Fischer, Brian J. Rehill, Richard L. Lindroth, Ann E. Hagerman, Stuart C. Wooley, Stephen C. Hart, Thomas G. Whitham

Research output: Contribution to journalShort surveypeer-review

159 Scopus citations


Research that connects ecosystem processes to genetic mechanisms has recently gained significant ground, yet actual studies that span the levels of organization from genes to ecosystems are extraordinarily rare. Utilizing foundation species from the genus Populus, in which the role of condensed tannins (CT) has been investigated aboveground, belowground, and in adjacent streams, we examine the diverse mechanisms for the expression of CT and the ecological consequences of CT for forests and streams. The wealth of data from this genus highlights the importance of form and function of CT in large-scale and long-term ecosystem processes and demonstrates the following four patterns: (1) plant-specific concentration of CT varies as much as fourfold among species and individual genotypes; (2) large within-plant variation in CT occurs due to ontogenetic stages (that is, juvenile and mature), tissue types (that is, leaves versus twigs) and phenotypic plasticity in response to the environment; (3) CT have little consistent effect on plant-herbivore interactions, excepting organisms utilizing woody tissues (that is, fungal endophytes and beaver), however; (4) CT in plants consistently slow rates of leaf litter decomposition (aquatic and terrestrial), alter the composition of heterotrophic soil communities (and some aquatic communities) and reduce nutrient availability in terrestrial ecosystems. Taken together, these data suggest that CT may play an underappreciated adaptive role in regulating nutrient dynamics in ecosystems. These results also demonstrate that a holistic perspective from genes-to-ecosystems is a powerful approach for elucidating complex ecological interactions and their evolutionary implications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1005-1020
Number of pages16
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2008


  • Above- and belowground interactions
  • Aquatic-terrestrial linkages
  • Community genetics
  • Condensed tannin
  • Plant-soil feedbacks
  • Populus
  • Salicaceae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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