A Thousand Invisible Cords: From Genes to Ecosystems presents a new and hopeful perspective on how to address some of the most important environmental challenges of our times and emphasizes how even at the genetic level, all organisms on planet earth are connected. As the 19th century naturalist, writer, and environmental activist John Muir stated, “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.” This film takes these connections to a whole new scientific level by exploring the frontiers of ecology with one of the smallest biological units, the gene.
The documentary is based on 30 years of interdisciplinary research, involving nearly 100 collaborators from across the United States and around the world. These scientists come from diverse disciplines ranging from molecular genetics to community ecology and climate change modeling. They study organisms as diverse as plants, microbes, insects, and mammals.
Cottonwoods, which are a foundation species of streamside forests, were the original focus of the research that led to their development of community and ecosystem genetics. These studies were expanded to include cushion plants on mountain tops and arid pine forests of the Colorado Plateau. Parallel studies on other continents are showing the same patterns.
Foundation species are the “glue” that hold their ecosystems together. They are a species that structures a community by creating locally stable conditions for other species. Because they exist in all ecosystems, the genetic variation in these species is especially important to understand as it can “drive” a much larger community of organisms.
A key experimental tool, the common garden, was used to examine how genetically distinct cottonwoods support different communities of organisms in the canopy and belowground on their roots. In other words, the genes in one organism, in this case a foundation tree species, can define a much larger community of organisms and even affect ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling.
Researchers found that a single gene in a plant or animal can affect an entire landscape. 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.
This genes-to-ecosystems approach offers an alternative to studying the genetics of one organism at a time and preserving one species at a time. It concentrates on the genetics of the relatively few foundation species and their interactions that drive the rest of the community.
This finding has far-reaching implications for preserving biodiversity, managing climate change, restoring damaged ecosystems, and gauging the effects of new technologies on the environment. Practical applications have begun, especially in restoring damaged ecosystems.
The documentary underscores the value of collaboration and integrative science in solving complex problems.
A Thousand Invisible Cords was produced by the IDEA Lab at Northern Arizona University (NAU). The 56-minute film was written by Daniel Boone and Peter Freiderici, directed and produced by Dan Boone and Ryan Belnap, and narrated by Victor O. Leshyk.
The film was funded by the National Science Foundation and the IDEA Lab at Northern Arizona University. Additional support came from the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research and the University of Tasmania.