Conservation Genetics is in the good, the bad, and the ugly spotlight. Conservation Genetics “aims to understand the dynamics of genes in populations principally to avoid extinction.” Clear as mud?
It may be easier to understand with an example. Conservation genetics aims to help endangered species, like African cheetahs. Today the existing 10,000 African cheetahs share 99 percent of their DNA. In other words, they’re all related. This means there is little genetic diversity. Low genetic diversity leads to a population that is highly susceptible to disease. Disease that could make the African cheetahs extinct.
Scientists involved with cheetah breeding projects determine how closely related two cheetahs are. They want to reintroduce genetic variety into the population of cheetahs. So, they choose the ones that are the furthest apart genetically and breed those two together.
If they are successful, the cheetah population will grow. (Source: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/better-living-through-conservation-genetics/)
Revive & Restore
Revive and Restore is a nonprofit organization. Its mission is to “enhance biodiversity through new techniques of genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species.” One of their funded projects searches for the genomic trigger of bleaching the coral reefs. They say that this study has the “potential opportunity to engineer genomic resilience to climate change. They also hope to de-extinct the Woolly Mammoth.
Preserving some species (bees?) would be good, even essential, for the survival of the human race. And who would argue against restoring beautiful cats like cheetahs? Or the coral reefs that protect shorelines and provide habitats for many species?
The Bad: Not a Simple Answer
According to Nature, the early studies of the low genetic variability of the cheetah had many inconsistencies. But those studies brought genetics into conservation efforts and research. Conservationists are learning. They study population decline and inbreeding many near-extinction species.
The cheetahs are one of many species that have developed low genetic variety despite no evidence of population decline. The authors of the article in Nature caution that scientists may study and manipulate genetic variations that do not matter to the species.
They suggest that for some species, the low genetic variations during a population decline may be the best genetic survival mechanism for the species.
The Ugly: Consequences
Conservation genetics is a young discipline. Young enough that they do not know what, beyond selective breeding programs, they might be able to do.
Even with selective breeding programs, there have been consequences. “when a population of Tatra mountain ibex in Czechoslovakia was ‘enriched’ by new animals from Sinai and Turkey, the offspring inherited an inappropriate calving date, giving birth in mid-winter.” The calves born in the winter died.
Learning how to de-extinct the Woolly Mammoth may help its current day cousins survive longer. We don’t know what the consequences of de-extincting any species would be. We rarely know the consequences of any new scientific research will be. Does that mean we should abandon new research?
As usual, the ethics discussions lag the scientific discussions and studies. Are conservation genetic efforts “directing evolutionary change?” Is de-extinction of long-gone species, like the Woolly Mammoth, an ethical thing to do? What about saving the coral reef? Or the cheetahs?
We humans are responsible directly and indirectly for the extinction of many species. Does that mean we have a moral duty to restore the species? If that is our moral duty, what about our duty to our species? If we learn enough, we could eradicate some diseases. Should we? Is there a line we should not cross?
What do You Think?
We merely touched on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Conservation Genetics. Had you heard of conservation genetics before? Will the potential good of conservation genetics outweigh any bad or ugly consequences? Would you de-exterminate the Woolly Mammoth, if you could?
If this post made you think,, you might like to read “Head Transplants.”