Ecological autocatalysis: A central principle in ecosystem organization?

Michiel P. Veldhuis*, Matty P. Berg, Michel Loreau, Han Olff

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Ecosystems comprise flows of energy and materials, structured by organisms and their interactions. Important generalizations have emerged in recent decades about conversions by organisms of energy (metabolic theory of ecology) and materials (ecological stoichiometry). However, these new insights leave a key question about ecosystems inadequately addressed: are there basic organizational principles that explain how the interaction structure among species in ecosystems arises? Here we integrate recent contributions to the understanding of how ecosystem organization emerges through ecological autocatalysis (EA), in which species mutually benefit through self-reinforcing circular interaction structures. We seek to generalize the concept of EA by integrating principles from community and ecosystem ecology. We discuss evidence suggesting that ecological autocatalysis is facilitated by resource competition and natural selection, both central principles in community ecology. Furthermore, we suggest that pre-emptive resource competition by consumers and plant resource diversity drive the emergence of autocatalytic loops at the ecosystem level. Subsequently, we describe how interactions between such autocatalytic loops can explain pattern and processes observed at the ecosystem scale, and summarize efforts to model different aspect of the phenomenon. We conclude that EA is a central principle that forms the backbone of the organization in systems ecology, analogous to autocatalytic loops in systems chemistry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)304-319
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Monographs
Issue number3
Early online date22 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2018


  • Autocatalytic loops
  • Community ecology
  • Ecosystem ecology
  • Interaction structure
  • Positive feedback
  • Pre-emptive resource competition
  • Resource diversity
  • Self-organization


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