11:32 am - Monday May 28, 2012

Conservation Genetics

Conservation genetics is an interdisciplinary science that aims to apply genetic methods to the conservation and restoration of biodiversity. Researchers involved in conservation genetics come from a variety of fields including population genetics, molecular ecology, biology, evolutionary biology, and systematics. Genetic diversity is one of the three fundamental levels of biodiversity, so it is directly important in conservation of biodiversity, though genetic factors are also important in the conservation of species and ecosystem diversity. Conservation of genetic variability is important to the overall health of populations because decreased genetic variability leads to increased levels of inbreeding, and reduced fitness.

Genetic diversity is the variability of a genes in a species. It can be estimated by the mean levels of heterozygosity in a population, the mean number of alleles per locus, or the percentage of polymorphic loci.

Importance of Genetic Diversity

If genetic diversity becomes low at many genes of a species, that species becomes increasingly at risk. It has only one possible choice of information at all or nearly all of its genes-in other words, all the individuals are nearly identical. If new pressures (such as environmental disasters) occur, a population with high genetic diversity has a greater chance of having at least some individuals with a genetic makeup that allows them to survive. If genetic diversity is very low, none of the individuals in a population may have the characteristics needed to cope with the new environmental conditions. Such a population could be suddenly wiped out.

The genetic diversity of a species is always open to change. No matter how many variants of a gene are present in a population today, only the variants that survive in the next generation can contribute to species diversity in the future. Once gene variants are lost, they cannot be recovered.

Techniques of Genetic Diversity

Specific genetic techniques are used to assess the genetics of a species regarding specific conservation issues as well as general population structure. This analysis can be done in two ways, with current DNA of individuals or historic DNA.

Implications of Genetic Diversity

New technology in conservation genetics has many implications for the future of conservation biology. At the molecular level, new technologies are advancing. Some of these techniques include minisatellites and MHC. These molecular techniques have wider effects from clarifying taxonomic relationships, as in the previous example, to determining the best individuals to reintroduce to a population for recovery by determining kinship. These effects then have consequences that reach even further. Conservation of species has implications for humans in the economic, social, and political realms. In the biological realm increased genotypic diversity has been shown to help ecosystem recovery, as seen in a community of grasses which was able to resist disturbance to grazing geese through greater genotypic diversity. Because species diversity increases ecosystem function, increasing biodiversity through new conservation genetic techniques has wider reaching effects than before.

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