Eco-evolutionary feedbacks between private and public goods: Evidence from toxic algal blooms

William W. Driscoll, Jeremiah D. Hackett, Régis Ferrière

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


The importance of 'eco-evolutionary feedbacks' in natural systems is currently unclear. Here, we advance a general hypothesis for a particular class of eco-evolutionary feedbacks with potentially large, long-lasting impacts in complex ecosystems. These eco-evolutionary feedbacks involve traits that mediate important interactions with abiotic and biotic features of the environment and a self-driven reversal of selection as the ecological impact of the trait varies between private (small scale) and public (large scale). Toxic algal blooms may involve such eco-evolutionary feedbacks due to the emergence of public goods. We review evidence that toxin production by microalgae may yield 'privatised' benefits for individual cells or colonies under pre- and early-bloom conditions; however, the large-scale, ecosystem-level effects of toxicity associated with bloom states yield benefits that are necessarily 'public'. Theory predicts that the replacement of private with public goods may reverse selection for toxicity in the absence of higher level selection. Indeed, blooms often harbor significant genetic and functional diversity: bloom populations may undergo genetic differentiation over a scale of days, and even genetically similar lineages may vary widely in toxic potential. Intriguingly, these observations find parallels in terrestrial communities, suggesting that toxic blooms may serve as useful models for eco-evolutionary dynamics in nature. Eco-evolutionary feedbacks involving the emergence of a public good may shed new light on the potential for interactions between ecology and evolution to influence the structure and function of entire ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-97
Number of pages17
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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