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How 1 gene in a tiny fish may alter an aquatic ecosystem

In a remote area of British Columbia's Vancouver Island, Kennedy Lake's deep blue waters stretch over 25 square miles. The lake is home to the threespine stickleback, a diminutive fish species that has provided rich fodder for evolutionary study. These sticklebacks thrive in both marine and freshwater habitats and exist in most of the inland waters that dot the northern coasts of North America, Europe and Asia. Significant to scientists, the species has a conspicuously variable trait governed by a single gene: the amount of bony plating, or "armoring," on their bodies. Variations in this gene in this tiny fish species have the potential to alter the broader aquatic ecosystem, according to new research. Fish with more armoring released more phosphorous into the water around them, the researchers found. Because phosphorous is such a key element in aquatic ecosystems, such a difference may have trickle-down effects on microbes, plants and algae in freshwater or marine areas. The team used novel methods to assess how evolution influences the elemental makeup of individual fish, essentially viewing the organisms as a sack of atoms -- carbon, calcium, strontium and the like.

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