Natural 'keystone molecules' punch over their weight in ecosystems

May 16, 2013, American Institute of Biological Sciences

Naturally occurring "keystone" molecules that have powerful behavioral effects on diverse organisms often play large but unrecognized roles in structuring ecosystems, according to a theory proposed in the June issue of BioScience.

The authors of the theory, Ryan P. Ferrer of Seattle Pacific University and Richard K. Zimmer of the University of California at Los Angeles, liken such molecules to keystone species, animals or plants that may be uncommon but exert a controlling influence, through predation or in other ways. Keystone molecules function in and defense, and likewise have dominant consequences in nature.

Ferrer and Zimmer give four examples of keystone molecules. DMSP is a simple chemical, synthesized by single-celled , that has powerful effects on bacteria, and through its breakdown products, on the foraging of seabirds. Saxitoxin is a potent poison, also produced by , that repels some but can cause massive die-offs of fishes, seabirds, and marine mammals. Tetrodotoxin is another toxic keystone molecule, but produced in the skin of newts. It prompts newt larvae to hide to avoid being cannibalized and also deters some predators. that feed on newts, however, can accumulate the toxin in their own tissues, which in turn provides them with predator protection. Pyrrolizidine akaloids, which are synthesized by many plants, repel most plant-eaters, but are consumed by some moths, which recycle the alkaloids and convert them into a powerful volatile pheromone that attracts mates.

Because of their multifunctional effects and importance in the sea, in fresh water, and on land, keystone molecules deserve special attention from managers seeking to conserve species, Ferrer and Zimmer argue. The loss of a species that produces or captures a keystone molecule in an area could have far-reaching effects, as could the arrival of a non-native species that disrupts flows of the molecules. Future research, Ferrer and Zimmer suggest, is likely to reveal more keystone molecules and unseen webs of natural control.

Explore further: Most in US, Canada support Keystone pipeline

Related Stories

Most in US, Canada support Keystone pipeline

April 22, 2013

A majority of both Americans and Canadians support the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to funnel oil from Alberta's tar sands to Texas refineries, according to polls Monday.

Proposed pipeline could cost jobs, not create them

October 3, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Claims of job creation by the TransCanada Corp. Keystone XL Pipeline are inflated at best and misleading at worst, according to a new report by the ILR Global Labor Institute (GLI) posted on its website.

Drawing connections between food webs

April 4, 2012

Ecosystems today face various threats, from climate change to invasive species to encroaching civilization. If we hope to protect these systems and the species that live in them, we must understand them — an extremely ...

Loss of rare species can harm ecosystems

March 19, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Here’s another reason to cheer for the little guy. A new study co-authored by Matthew Bracken, assistant professor of biology in Northeastern’s College of Science, has found that rare species from ...

Stage set for battle over Canada-US pipeline

April 18, 2013

A lengthy battle over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which aims to funnel oil from Canada's tar sands to coastal Texas, heads to the most hotly contested area along the route Thursday.

Recommended for you

Scale-eating fish adopt clever parasitic methods to survive

January 17, 2018

Think of them as extra-large parasites. A small group of fishes—possibly the world's cleverest carnivorous grazers—feeds on the scales of other fish in the tropics. The different species' approach differs: some ram their ...

How living systems compute solutions to problems

January 17, 2018

How do decisions get made in the natural world? One possibility is that the individuals or components in biological systems collectively compute solutions to challenges they face in their environments. Consider that fish ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.