New research leads to findings in conservation genomics

By Patrick Miller

Staff Writer

Conservation has become a significant field of study and focus for geneticists in recent years as new realizations of powerful applications and techniques emerge. Several new papers published earlier this year describe genetics and its rising relevance in today’s global landscape within the past five years.

Climate change and impact has progressed rapidly with advancement of genetic studies.

Locally, the Eastern Shore has suffered as a coastal region due to the rising oceans and erosion of important habitats like Assateague Island. The National Parks Service closely monitors endangered and threatened species like the piping plover and the island’s wild horse population.

They have begun distributing the genetic work in monitoring DNA of the individuals in the population to labs around the country, as they know that monitoring the population is not just counting individuals. It is more than that.

Approaching these large problems can be an intimidating venture with so many factors to consider, and some conservationists have begun to look at these problems from a molecular point of view. Genetic techniques are used to get even more information about the populations that they study.

Population genomics describes the examination of all the genes of interbreeding animals of the same species in the same relative location. Together, they form the population’s gene pool and give insight into how the population changes over time as well as their mechanisms to adapt and react to their environment and one another.

Understanding the genetics of a population is quickly becoming a necessity in conservational pursuits. When does the size of a population reflect good overall gene health?

Are there any specific pressures that may be put on the genes of the organism? The effects of the large scale observations are not enough to truly save a species.

The investigation must go deeper into the realm of the genome.

Kim Hunter is a professor here at SU and runs a lab with Ryan Taylor in addition to her instruction of a Genetic Analysis class in which students develop skills in making sense of principles of genes and inheritance.

The Hunter/Taylor lab looks at populations of both tungara (Physalaemus pustulous) and green tree frogs (Hyla cinerea) to see if the complex behavior of mate choice is reflected in the genes of the frog.

In her work she has identified three different genetic populations of frogs a mile apart where the behavior would suggest one population. She knows that due to the genetic variation of these populations, they must be regarded differently in order to appropriately assess how frogs interact on a larger scale.

Hunter acknowledges that the future of scientific study is based on a “multi-disciplinary approach.” Conservationists are realizing that their pursuits cannot be uncollaborative or not much change can be expected.

Genetic approaches to saving species are taking off lately in some new and exciting directions as the power of genetic analysis is applied to helping protect animal and plant species that need saving.

Chris Funk of Colorado State’s biology department has been pioneering work into developing something of a genomics toolkit that can be applied to many different organisms suffering from endangerment and threat.

He assesses genetic variability and stability in different populations and states on his website that he and his lab seek to “generate and maintain biological diversity using population genomics, experimental manipulations, and field studies.”

Currently his conservation genomics focus has led to an impressive and deeper understanding of three animals on the California Channel Islands, one of which, the island fox (Urocyon littoralis), is listed under the endangered species act.

At the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Devon Drown conducts research on adaptive genomics and seeks to understand how change of environment and genetic makeup can affect an organism’s aptitude for survival.

The future of genetic applications in conservation is an important one to watch, as new technologies make more and more possible. Physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists are working with biologists like never before to sequence entire genomes and glean significant information from millions of base pairs in the DNA strands.

The forefront of scientific discovery involves these collaborations and creates a keen focus on making real change with science not just on the Eastern Shore, but around the whole world.

 

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