New eco-documentary showcases interdisciplinary research; Premier on Wednesday, April 25, at 7 p.m. in Cline Library

A Thousand Invisible Cords Premiere

The world is connected in more ways than most people thought possible: A single gene can affect an entire landscape. A new documentary, A Thousand Invisible Cords: Connecting Genes to Ecosystems, which was produced by NAU’s IDEA Lab, presents scientific discoveries that will change how we think of our world.  The groundbreaking research merges different disciplines, such as ecology and genetics, to unlock the mystery of how whole communities are formed and maintained. 

This research can help us address some of the most pressing issues of our time—from safeguarding the health and biodiversity of our planet  to managing climate change, guiding restoration of damaged ecosystems, and gauging the effects of new technologies on the environment. 

"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."

--John Muir

The film, whose title A Thousand Invisible Cords takes its inspiration from a quote by the 19th century naturalist, writer, and environmental activist John Muir, will have its (free) premier screening on Wednesday, April 25, at 7 p.m. in NAU’s Cline Library Assembly Hall.  It will then air on PBS stations and be showcased in other states and countries.

Immediately following the one-hour screening, there will be a panel discussion featuring individuals interviewed in the film, NAU faculty, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the film’s production crew. They will answer questions about key themes raised in the documentary, such as foundation species, climate change, genetically modified organisms, preserving biodiversity, ecological restoration, and the benefits and difficulties of doing collaborative work.

The science behind the film

The cutting-edge science explored in the documentary began 30 years ago with a single research experiment by Tom Whitham, NAU Regents' Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, and Executive Director of the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research.  Whitham and his students were studying aphids, which feed on cottonwood trees—a fast-growing tree native to the banks of North American waterways. They noticed that some trees were heavily attacked, while other adjacent trees were hardly touched. Whitham wondered whether the differences were a result of genetic effects or environmental conditions, such as differences in the soils in which the trees grew.

Whitham took cuttings from 81 cottonwoods growing along Utah’s Weber River and then planted them in a common garden at the Ogden Nature Center in Utah, where the environment was held constant. Thus, any differences observed in the pattern of aphid survival would be caused by genetic differences among the trees. The experiments clearly confirmed the genetic hypothesis. 

NAU Research Greenhouse

Collaborations from around the globe

Soon other researchers began to collaborate. They discovered that genetically different cottonwoods affect far more than just the aphids, they affect a rich community of about 700 insect species, the microbial community in the soil, lichens on the trunk, fungi that live in the twigs, the birds that feed on the insects, and the beavers that selectively fell trees with specific traits.  

Because a whole community of other organisms is largely defined by the underlying genetics of the cottonwood trees, cottonwoods are considered a "foundation" species. A small change in just a few lines of a foundation species’ genetic code can have a domino effect on whole communities and even ecosystem processes. There are many other foundation species connected with various types of ecosystems, and the research with cottonwoods offers a replicable model.

More than 60 collaborators have worked on the cottonwood project from around the U.S. and abroad.  Most are members of the Cottonwood Ecology Group and continue to make new and exciting discoveries. In addition, the group has built key partnerships with land-management agencies so that basic research, conservation, and restoration can be conducted simultaneously. These collaborations have in turn contributed to new research and training programs, such as the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA), a joint $3.5 million National Science Foundation/NAU collaboration to integrate genetics and climate change research.

A simplified way to study complex problems

"The genes-to-ecosystems approach offers a simplified way of going after very complex problems because we’re concentrating on the genetics—the foundation species and their interactions—rather than trying to study the genetics of every organism simultaneously," says Whitham. "Just as the 'green revolution' has used genetics to help feed the world, community genetics can be used to help save and restore natural ecosystems."

Educational resources to complement the film

To supplement the information in the film and help adapt it to classroom use, researchers are developing lesson plans to use in middle school, high school, and university classrooms, and they are translating the film script into other languages.  More information will be available at

--Sylvia Somerville

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