How can modern genetic tools be used in conservation assessment and monitoring?

Species that are of conservation concern usually are facing declining population sizes (often due to negative interactions with humans), fragmentation of habitats that causes existing populations to become isolated from each other, loss of their habitat, and interactions with new species or diseases. For species to persist despite these threats, they need to have and maintain variation, especially if some of that variation is adaptive (for instance, helps individuals survive at higher temperatures). Conservation scientists want to be able to measure how much variation threatened populations have and monitor changes in variation over time. Monitoring changes over time becomes especially important if scientists intervene in some way to increase diversity in a population.

Last year*, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), where I’m a postdoctoral fellow, hosted a workshop called Next Generation Genetic Monitoring, which brought together more than 30 researchers** from around the world to discuss topics related to using recent*** sequencing technology to improve monitoring of species of conservation concern. At the end of 2.5 days, the group decided to publish our discussions in a special issue of the journal Evolutionary Applications in a series of at least 12 papers, six of which came directly from the workshop.

WS_nextgen_700x183.jpg

The participants of the Next Generation Genetic Monitoring workshop at NIMBioS. Reproduced from http://www.nimbios.org/workshops/WS_nextgen

We split into several sub-groups to focus on different sub-topics, and I was in a group discussing population-level variation. My group decided to write a guide for conservation biologists, who may not be familiar with the sequencing methods, helping them design and implement an effect assessment and monitoring of genetic variation in populations. In our paper, we highlight the key decisions researchers need to make while designing studies and provide guidelines for interpreting results to help inform conservation actions. I am also part of another paper that discusses some of the assumptions and misinterpretations of some commonly-used metrics of genetic diversity. I encourage you to check out the entire Special Issue for some really great looks into different scales of genetic monitoring!

I learned so much from my colleagues during the workshop and while working on these papers. It was exciting to take what I know about population genetics, selection, and sequencing methodologies and apply my knowledge to conservation issues. That’s one of the great things about these types of collaborations – you can gain new insight on your own topics by applying your knowledge to new questions, and from another perspective. This was an excellent experience, and I hope to participate in more workshops like this in the future!

*November 7-9, 2016

**I was one of those researchers!

***If a little over 10 years old is recent

Flanagan SP, Forester BR, Latch EK, Aitken SN, Hoban S. Guidelines for planning genomic assessment and monitoring of locally adaptive variation to inform species conservation. Evol Appl. 2017;00:118. https://doi.org/10.1111/eva.12569

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