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Theoretical Ecologist Rui Wu Wang Appointed to Royal Society
Update time:2014-01-06  |  Author:  |   【Print】【Close】

The Executive Committee for the British Royal Society recently appointed Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), theoretical ecologist Rui-Wui Wang to the editorial board of Proceedings of the Royal Society B (PRSB). PRSB is one of several flagship publications of the British Royal Society aimed highlighting new and innovative life-science research focused on medicine and life science research, with special emphasis on molecular biology and macro-ecology.  

Wang earned his Ph.D. from KIZ and has since served as a researcher in experimental and theoretical ecology, where he has been the recipient of the National Outstanding Youth Science Fund, and CAS’s Outstanding Young Life Scientists special fund. Most of Wang’s work focuses on mutualisms and modeling ecological behavior using several statistical and theoretical models paired with experimental ecology to investigate the stability of the cooperative relationships and ecosystem.  

Wang’s recent work on mutualisms between Fig Wasps and Banyan trees has also received wide attention in the Chinese Press. The Banyan Tree and Fig Wasp mutualism is one of the most well documented mutualisms in nature, where the fig provides some female flowers for the fig wasps to lay their eggs while the wasps pollinate fig flowers, forming the basis of mutual benefit. To date, there have been several competing theories as to how this relationship evolved and has been maintained, but they do not explain some of the variations observed by field researchers. Wang and his team developed a new theory based on around the metaphorical use of the “carrot and the stick”, or rewards and punishment. Wang’s model showed how the fig tree can actually opt to use differing degrees of either the carrot or the stick, and reward or punish individual wasps by either limiting the amount of offspring that develop from cheating wasps or rewarding cooperative pollinators by allowing a greater number of their offspring to develop.  

If correct, Wang’s new theory has some startling implications for how species evolve and enter into symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationships. Given the ability of organisms like the fig trees to use either the carrot and stick to reward those who cooperate or punish those who cheat, it stands to reason that mutualism systems may have actually evolved from earlier host-parasite systems. When parasites mutated towards using more cooperative strategies, the host rewarded them by increasing the number of cooperative offspring and reducing the number of parasitic offspring. Through the generations, the cumulative effects of the rewards or punishment gradually began to change the nature of the originally parasitic species, making them more cooperative. Once the relationship reached an optimal point where both organisms are gaining the greatest benefit, the carrot and stick system acts to maintain the relationship by punishing deviant cheating behavior and continuing to reward those individuals who continue to cooperative and sustain the mutually beneficial relationship. 

(By Andrew Willden) 


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