Boosting genetic diversity may save vanishing animal populations. But it may also backfire

Science | AAAS | 7/16/2019 | Staff
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PROVIDENCE—The expanding global human footprint is dividing the world’s flora and fauna into ever-smaller, more isolated populations that could wink out because of inbreeding, disease, or environmental change. For decades, conservationists have proposed revitalizing those holdouts by bringing in new blood from larger populations. But they’ve wondered whether it really works—and how to do it without swamping the genetic identity and unique adaptations of the group at risk. Last month at Evolution 2019 here, researchers described how genomic tools are refining what is known as genetic rescue.

Although zoos have worked to maintain genetic diversity in endangered species by carefully matching individual animals for breeding, the strategy has rarely been tried in nature. Genetic rescue “should be attempted more frequently,” Andrew Whiteley, a conservation genomicist at the University of Montana in Missoula, and his colleagues wrote last week in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. But showing that it works requires tracking multiple generations for years, something few studies have attempted. And researchers have only recently been able to detect what happens on a molecular level. Now, says Sarah Fitzpatrick, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) W. K. Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, “We have genomic tools to study these populations … in ways we never could before.”

Blood - Populations - Evolution - Study - Guppies

Adding new blood to small populations really does help, a long-term experimental evolution study of wild guppies in Trinidad has demonstrated, says Brendan Reid, an MSU conservation biologist who works with Fitzpatrick. Decades ago, researchers seeded the headwaters of two streams in the mountainous country with guppies taken from a distant habitat. In one stream, the displaced fish had to travel a long way and only slowly made their way downstream to a small, isolated population. In the other stream, the fish more quickly joined another isolated group. Every month for 2.5...
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