Scientists from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the University of California, Santa Cruz have developed a ground-breaking method to predict what mammal species are most at risk of extinction. After studying 240 mammal species, including humans, the team found that by analysing genomic information that reflects the species’ history over millions of years, rapid and cost-effective conservation risk assessments can be made even with limited knowledge of the animal’s behaviour and life history.
The research, which is part of the Zoonomia Consortium project, involved over 150 people worldwide and is the largest of its kind. These findings, published in a special issue of the journal Science, could change how conservation actions and resources are allocated to help protect endangered wildlife.
The study also revealed that species with smaller historical populations are at greater risk of extinction as they have a higher burden of damaging mutations, emphasising the relevance of long-term demographic statistics to conservation efforts today. Biology experts agree that the findings could change how conservation actions and resources are allocated to help save endangered wildlife.
“Our rapidly changing world threatens animal and plant species worldwide – but the use of genomics in conservation is a massive, underappreciated opportunity to protect them,” said Oliver Ryder, PhD, the Kleberg Endowed Director of Conservation Genetics at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and co-senior author of the paper.
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“We are in an unprecedented era of discovery – a whole new way of seeing the world. We’ve long thought this potential existed, but it’s profound to see it crystallize into a catalyst that will help conservationists make crucial decisions that may save the world as we know it.”
Massive biodiversity loss
The rapid loss of biodiversity on our planet puts tens of thousands of species at risk of extinction, but determining which species require urgent conservation efforts is a costly and time-consuming process. This challenge is compounded by the lack of information available for thousands of species, making it difficult to allocate limited conservation resources to those closest to the brink.
Fortunately, researchers have turned to genomic research to develop models that can quickly differentiate between threatened and non-threatened species based on factors such as demography, diversity, and mutations affecting fitness. As more genomes are sequenced, these models will continue to improve, allowing for more effective assessments of extinction risk and identification of species most in need of conservation support.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of these genomic risk assessment models, scientists used them to evaluate three “data-deficient” species lacking information on their threatened status. The results demonstrate that even genomic data from a single individual can provide immediate, actionable guidance for designing conservation strategies and directing limited resources to where they will have the greatest impact.
This research marks a significant step forward in efforts to protect endangered species and highlights the transformative potential of genomic information in conservation.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
The Frozen Zoo, also known as the Wildlife Biodiversity Bank, is the largest genetic material repository of its kind in the world. It has provided many genetic samples, including those of endangered and threatened species, for DNA analyses conducted by more than 50 institutions worldwide as part of the Zoonomia Consortium. The Frozen Zoo contains viable cell cultures and reproductive material from around 10,000 animals, representing over 1,100 species and subspecies, and is run by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
Leading the Zoonomia Consortium are Elinor Karlsson, PhD, director of the vertebrate genomics group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, PhD, scientific director of vertebrate genomics at the same institute and a professor of comparative genomics at Uppsala University.
The Science series papers also highlight how comparative genomics can provide insight into how some species achieve remarkable feats and improve our understanding of functional parts of the genome and how they influence health and disease. The research also identified the genetic basis for unique mammalian traits, such as the ability to detect faint odours from miles away.
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Recent advances in genetic sequencing technology have made genomics more cost-effective and accessible. This means that it can become a more potent tool for conservation biologists. By using genomics to identify species at high risk of extinction and comprehend the genetic basis of rare traits, scientists can take targeted conservation actions to prevent further biodiversity loss.
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and the University of California, Santa Cruz’s research highlights the potential of genomics to transform our understanding of the natural world and support conservation efforts. Innovative approaches to conservation are urgently needed to address the planet’s unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss. The use of genomics to identify endangered species and target conservation efforts could be a game-changer in the struggle to protect endangered wildlife and conserve biodiversity for future generations.