Whole DNA sequences should be used to improve conservation decisions

The U.S. Endangered Species Act has saved or recovered many species, and is recognized as one of the most powerful laws in the world for protecting the environment. The primary aim of the Act is to ensure that populations and species persist, and to conserve genetic variation in population. But little attention is paid to the adaptive potential of populations—the capability of populations to evolve when faced with new selective pressures—even though new genetic methods of sequencing the entire DNA of organisms are now cheaper and easier than ever before. These new “genomic” methods offer the unprecedented ability of measure how much adaptive potential each population contains. In a new paper, scientists explain how managers, policy makers, and conservationists can harness the power of genomic methods to ensure that protected populations have as much capacity as possible to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The new paper by W.C. Funk and others, including SAFS professor Sarah Converse, appears in the journal Conservation Genetics.

Illustration of adaptive potential for a population with genes that are adapted to cold (c) or hot (h) conditions. In panel a, all individuals contain a mixture of genes and can adapt to either hot or cold conditions. In panel b, one population has only the genes for cold (cc) and the other population for hot (hh) conditions; both lack the adaptive potential to exist in a different thermal regime. In panel (c), environmental conditions follow a gradient from cold on the left to warm on the right, and there are more cc individuals in cold regions, and more hh individuals in hot regions, illustrating how adaptive potential allows populations to live in a variety of conditions in a changing environment.
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