ResearchPublished on 23.08.2019

Flower Power: The purple pitcher plant brings together worldwide scientists in Fribourg

One month ago, the SPIN - the Sarracenia purpurea International Network has been created at the University of Fribourg during a dedicated workshop. This official consortium counts 17 researchers from North America, UK, Germany and Switzerland as well as their current collaborators. They have all in common their interest for the S. purpurea (or its English name purple pitcher plant). Despite of its origin in Labrador and centre of the Canada, this carnivorous plant has been introduced in field sites in Switzerland. It is where many of the participants see for the first time S. purpurea growing outside of North America.

But why is this plant so amazing? Actually, the purple pitcher plant relies on the unique shape of its leaves for capturing insects that are then used for essential nutrients. Rainwater fills the leaves, creating an ecosystem in which predator-prey dynamics between bacteria, protists, rotifers, and mosquito larvae occur. Each leaf acts as an enclosed habitat for this natural microscopic food web, allowing experiments to be conducted across a large biogeographic scale. In a nutshell, it is much easier to study an area that fits in your hand than an entire lake.

Improving research level thanks to international collaboration
Sarah Gray from Bersier group in the Department of Biology organized the workshop with the help of an SNSF Scientific Exchanges grant. She has been working on the S. purpurea for 16 years. This huge experience in North America and Switzerland, allowed her to see how necessary an international and interdisciplinary working group was at this stage. “Although this inquiline community is a simplified version of larger scale systems, it is still complex. This complexity has made it difficult to study the dynamics of the entire food web during experiments, which has resulted in a black box of unassessed interactions. Through collaboration, it will become feasible to examine more aspects of this food web and to use it to test mechanisms driving community dynamics and ecosystem functioning at a large biogeographic scale.” The group of international workshop participants was very well-rounded with expertise ranging from community ecology, plant biology, ecosystem ecology, evolutionary ecology, molecular biology and mathematical modelling. During the workshop, participants learned about each other’s expertises and discussed how to implement these skillsets into future S. purpurea research.

Studying the biodiversity-ecosystem functioning
Gaining knowledge of how ecosystems provide essential services to humans is of primary importance, especially with the current threat of climate change. Yet little is known about how increased temperature will impact the biodiversity–ecosystem functioning (BEF) relationship. In their study, thanks to theoretical and experimental research that were both in agreement, Bersier group at the Department of Biology in University of Fribourg, showed that under climate change, high diversity may not guarantee high ecosystem functioning.

Bersier group web page