This is an important and exciting time to do research in conservation genetics. That’s according to Professor Gordon Luikart, professor of conservation ecology and genetics at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Bio Station in the United States.
Professor Luikart, whose main research focus is the application of genetics to the conservation of natural and managed populations, recently delivered a lecture, The Expanding Role of Genetics/omics in Wildlife Research and Conservation, at the Bloemfontein campus from the University of the Free State. (UFS). The conference, organized by the Department of Genetics, was attended by a group of students and lecturers in conservation and a number of related fields.
He is one of the leading scientists in the field of conservation genetics, including the integration of genomics into conservation projects. He is also co-author of the textbook Conservation and the Genomics of populations – the currently prescribed textbook for GENE3744.
In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared that approximately 10-20% of all vertebrate and plant species are threatened with extinction within the next few decades. In 1984, American biologist Edward O Wilson also stated that it would take millions of years to correct the continuing loss of genetics and species diversity caused by the destruction of natural habitats. “It is the madness that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for.”
Professor Luikart believes that genetics has enormous potential to help manage wildlife and prevent extinction. “My research aims to realize this potential and help wildlife managers conserve populations and ecosystems,” he says.
Conservation managers and biologists have understood the risks of inbreeding for over 100 years. In his lecture, one of the aspects of genetic conservation he focused on was the negative effects of inbreeding and how this can be reversed using gene rescue.
With the genetic rescue study, they found that gene flow into recently isolated populations can increase individual fitness and population growth. He proposed that conservation managers consider genetic principles and rescue as practical and important tools.
Professor Luikart also provided a list of information that can be extracted from molecular genetic data to help conservation managers. This includes information on census and effective population size, gene flow and dispersal, local adaptation and selection, forensics, genetic identification and law enforcement, as well as the ecology and disease transmission.
Non-invasive genetic monitoring
In terms of detecting gene flow, he focused on a non-invasive genetic monitoring study that was conducted in Yellowstone Park. Professor Luikart and a group of students collected grizzly bear hair and droppings, obtained from trees and hair traps, which were used as a source of DNA.
They established, for example, that inbreeding depression is more common and stronger than previously thought in natural populations. Genetic monitoring, using non-invasive methods as described, has proven to be an effective tool that conservation managers should consider for detecting inbreeding and loss of genome-wide variation.
His research on bighorn sheep, alpine ibex, and black bear informed most of the findings he discussed at his lecture.