Genetics as a component of natural history

This week John Avise, a well-known leader in the field of evolutionary biology, visited Texas A&M. He founded the field of phylogeography (integrating population genetics and phylogenetics), and has done some really groundbreaking research. He’s also written several books that I recommend checking out. During his visit he gave a talk titled “Genetics in the Wild” (which is also the title of one of his books). In this lecture, Dr. Avise went through a variety of examples of cool and weird animals and how genetic techniques have been used to gain a better understanding of the animals’ life histories, extending our knowledge beyond what classical natural history and ecology studies could do. He said something that really resonated with me: genes are part of an organism, and that studying the genetics of a species or population is just studying another component of the natural history of that organism. This is sort of an obvious statement, but I think it’s a very important thing to keep in mind. Many people, both scientists and non-scientists, have the tendency to study the genetics of organisms in isolation from field studies. There are good reasons for doing experiments that way (for example, in developmental biology, it’s sort of important to keep the environmental conditions the same for all of your specimens, which wouldn’t happen in the field), but so often the results of genetics experiments are not well-integrated into our understanding of the organism and its ecology.John Avise’s talk was a good reminder that genetic techniques can serve as a tool applied to studying a microscopic and important component of organisms’ natural histories.


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