Throughout my career as a conservation biologist I’ve used a range of tools, from camera trapping and satellite tracking, to stable isotope analysis and hormone analysis.
In one sense, genomics is just another in a long line of tools. But it is a particularly powerful one. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can use it for in the conservation space, especially in relation to biodiversity.
Why is biodiversity so important? Anyone who did year five science knows that monoculture is bad.
We know in agriculture that if you only grow one type of agricultural product, your productivity decreases over time – that’s a given: we know that we need diversity of species within soils for those soils to remain healthy.
We haven’t discovered new antibiotics in over 50 years, yet nature is full of them – we’ve just got to find them. The search for bioactive molecules is huge these days, but if we continue to lose species, who knows what potential peptides they produce that could be useful to humans are being lost?
So even if you are not interested in the wonders of nature, but like the food that you eat, and the idea of new medicines to treat new diseases, then you have to care about biodiversity. Humans do not exist separately to the planet’s ecosystems as much as we like to think we do. There are an estimated 13 million species on this planet – humans are just one of them.
This is now widely understood. Australia signed the new Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in December last year – a global agreement that has been in force since 1993 that covers all aspects of biological diversity. The new CBD comes with a series of goals for 2050, and targets that have to be met by 2030. Maintaining species’ genetic diversity is one of the key goals.
Biodiversity is underpinned by three things:
- Diversity of ecosystems – the more different ecosystems we have on the planet, the better off biodiversity is.
- The more diversity of species we have within those ecosystems, the better off we are.
- The more genetic diversity individuals we have within those species, the better that species’ ability to be viable for the long term.
For a century, we’ve done really well on the first two: we’ve been monitoring the collapse of our ecosystems and the decline in species, because that’s what ecologists do. But it wasn’t until the human genome project in the late 1990s that we developed the technology to allow us to truly assess what’s happening at a genetic level.
Since then, we’ve invested a lot of time and effort in developing genomes and understanding how we can manipulate systems to make things better. We’re now at the cusp of translating all that research into the conservation sector.
One of the main targets of the CBD is that countries need to be able to maintain both wild and domestic species’ genetic diversity over time. The more genetic diversity a species has, the greater adaptive potential they have; the more genetic variation there is, the greater the chances of natural evolutionary processes occurring in a healthy way.
When populations get smaller, genetic diversity starts to get lost faster. The rate of mutation can’t keep up with the rate of loss – and that’s one of the factors which can lead to inbreeding, and animals not breeding and populations dying off.
The problem with genetics and genomics is that the technology changes so rapidly, you have to be quite a specialist to be able to do the work analysing the data – the bioinformatics. That makes it difficult for those whose expertise is managing the landscape, or tracking animals in the wild, or understanding how an ecosystem works, to also have expertise in genetics.
The field of biodiversity genomics really only started about five years ago. To train as specialists, students need to go through an undergraduate degree specialising in genomics and bioinformatics, and then most of them have to do some postgraduate work. So, we’re only graduating them now.
The next big thing in the field is producing these specialists who are able to translate what we know into a package to make it easier for those who need the information to be able to access it. It’s like we’re building this great library of all these genomes and all these resources. But it’s of no use if we don’t teach people how to come into the library and read the book.
As a field biologist, I’ve spent a huge amount of time chasing various species around the world. But conservation science needs all sorts of expertise. In my team are some people who are terrified about the idea of going out into the forest and sitting in the pouring rain and the mud for days.
But they’re exceptionally good at working in the lab, extracting DNA. I have other people who dislike everything about working in the lab, but love working on the computer and doing the bioinformatics. And then there are those who don’t really enjoy the deep-dive analyses but who are really good at interpreting science and translating it in such a way that makes it sensible to the end user.
The field of biodiversity genomics is there for anyone who’s interested in using their scientific skillset to be able to contribute to long-term biodiversity protection to save our planet.
As told to Graem Sims.