About the Film

A Thousand Invisible Cords: Connecting Genes to Ecosystems” is a 56-minute eco-documentary that can change how we view the world. No longer will we see species as isolated members of ecosystems but as genetically connected members of a rich interacting community. In the words of the 19th century naturalist, writer, and environmental activist John Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken to everything in the universe.”

cottonwoodCan an entire landscape be changed by one gene in one plant or animal? Thirty years of interdisciplinary research says yes, and this film follows the scientific journey that came to that conclusion.

At the heart of the research is the cottonwood tree, which grows along the banks of North American waterways. The lush cottonwoods are central to the health and biodiversity of their ecosystem. They are a “foundation species.” Researchers have found that a small change in just a few lines of a foundation species genetic code can have cascading effects on whole communities and even ecosystem processes.

These findings have inspired molecular geneticists, ecologists, and restoration biologists to work together as never before toward solving important environmental problems facing our world, such as:

  • How to manage climate change
  • How to restore damaged ecosystems
  • How to preserve biodiversity and
  • How to gauge the effects of new technologies on the environment.

Cottonwood Ecology Group

beaverResearchers featured in the documentary are members of the Cottonwood Ecology Group, an interdisciplinary research team composed of scientists, universities, and research institutions from across the country and the world. With decades of data and hundreds of publications behind them, members of the Cottonwood Ecology group continue to make new and exciting discoveries.


A Thousand Invisible Cords: Connecting Genes to Ecosystems” was produced by the IDEA Lab at Northern Arizona University. Dan Boone: producer/director. Ryan Belnap: first assistant director/ line producer.


  • Northern Arizona University
  • National Science Foundation
  • University of Tasmania
  • Bureau of Reclamation
  • Merriam Powell Cemter for Environmental Research