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Splicing the Role of Genetics in Conservation

By Rachel Bell

Genetics hold the secret to understanding evolutionary processes. They also hold the secret to how ecological and climatic factors influence the course of evolution. In fact, research has found that genetics play a vital role in the outcome of conservation efforts, and thus the fate of entire species.

A recent study published in the Cell Press journal Cell Reports, conducted by Marcus Kronforst and his colleagues at the University of Chicago expose the genetic steps of speciation in Heliconius butterflies within the rainforests of Central America. They found that initial speciation occurs through a few conserved and highly clustered genomic changes, making divergence a rather simple process which can occur even in intermixing populations. However, once initial divergence has occurred, the researchers recorded rapid and considerable genomic changes between species, ultimately creating an extremely diverse butterfly genus. Such a genetic pathway for speciation is highly favorable for the propagation of Heliconius.

A Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia). Photo Credit: Bob Peterson

Another evolutionary success story is the giant panda, according to new research published in BioMed Central’s open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. The study found that giant pandas have a high degree of genetic diversity in their MHC genes influencing their immune system which allows them to better cope with environmental changes. In the realm of wildlife conservation, this means that the researchers could recommend more genetically diverse populations of giant panda for captive breeding programs and other conservation efforts.

A Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons user jballeis.

However, sometimes the genetic path of a species can prove fatal. A study conducted by researchers from Nanjing Normal University and BGI, originally published in the journal Nature Communications, found that a bottleneck which occurred in the functionally extinct Yangtze River Dolphin’s demographic history led to a specialized but relatively homogenous genetic composition. This made the Baiji particularly susceptible to environmental changes and human activity, while also contributing to the failure of conservation efforts. Nonetheless, the genetic information found within the study will prove invaluable for future conservation of aquatic mammals.

The intersection of the genetic pathways of evolution and conservation efforts is pervasive throughout these three studies. Genetic analysis for the sake of evolutionary understanding is an increasingly important tool in conserving our biome’s natural systems. In examining the genetic processes of evolution in a species, we can better understand how they interact and evolve with their environment, and thus how we can conserve them.

Evolution: Darwin to DNA, a course offered through the Earth Institute’s Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability and taught by Martin Mendez of the Wildlife Conservation Society, delves into these topics while also exploring the history of evolutionary thought, all the way to its presence at the forefront of current scientific models and research. For more information please contact or visit our website at

Rachel Bell is a program assistant at the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability. She is a second-year undergraduate at Columbia College studying Evolutionary Biology of the Human Species.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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