Conservation Through Facilitated Adaptation

by clipp2 on March 2, 2015 - 11:52pm

                In a world where the threat to biodiversity is becoming greater and greater with each passing and the realization of its importance is being thrust to the forefront of the thought of conservationists, the field of genetic engineering is becoming an increasingly more prominent tool.  As widely discussed as this topic has become over the past two decades, it’s a field and a concept that is still relatively new and very much in its infancy.  It wasn’t even until the 1960’s that it became evident just how common and important genetic variation is for the successful survival of species of all kinds.  A major breakout moment, however, for this idea came in 1981 with the publication of Conservation and Evolution by Frankel and Soulé (Woodruff, 2001). 

                To give a very basic idea as to how the sequencing of DNA is accomplished and the genetic variation of a population determined, a survey of allozyme patterns is taken by sampling twenty individuals from a population.  Next, the genotype is determined at approximately 10-20 different loci (the location of a particular gene on a chromosome).  From this, calculations can be made to determine the mean number of alleles at each loci, the mean heterozygosity (the presence of different alleles at one or more loci on a homologous chromosome), and the proportion of loci that are polymorphic (the existence together of many forms of DNA sequences at a locus within the population) (Woodruff, 2001).

                The overall goal behind this research is that we can use this knowledge of gene sequencing, and the variation behind it, to modify the genes of species that are in danger of extinction to allow for a greater survival rate.  In other words, the hope is to increase their genetic variation and even insert specific genes from certain individuals that will increase the species adaptation in an ever changing environment.  This process in particular has come to be referred to as facilitated adaptation (Thomas et al., 2013).  While low genetic variability has been determined to be a limiting  factor for many species including cheetahs, California condors, and Arabian Oryx, just to name a few, there have been very few studies on the how facilitated adaptation and genetic engineering may or may not be a feasible option for species.  Also, the few studies that are currently being conducted are also so young in their existence that it’s hard to draw any definite conclusions from them at this time.

                While this concept may seem like it’s one of our most promising options to date in regards to conserving biodiversity, it is certainly not without controversy.  Many of its opponents are concerned that once a practice such as this becomes commonplace, it will only promote inaction with solving the root of the biodiversity issue whether it be climate change, habitat loss, or any other human facilitated action that is causing the decrease in biodiversity to begin with.


Thomas, Michael A., Gary W. Roemer, C. Josh Donlan, Brett G. Dickson, Marjorie Matocq, Jason Malaney. 2013. Ecology: Gene tweaking for conservation. Nature News.  

Woodruff, D. S. (2001). Populations, species and conservation genetics. Encyclopedia of biodiversity. 4:811-829.

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