It should come as no surprise to any reader of The G-CAT that I’m a firm believer against the false dichotomy (and yes, I really do love that phrase) of “nature versus nurture.” Primarily, this is because the phrase gives the impression of some kind of counteracting balance between intrinsic (i.e. usually genetic) and extrinsic (i.e. usually environmental) factors and how they play a role in behaviour, ecology and evolution. While both are undoubtedly critical for adaptation by natural selection, posing this as a black-and-white split removes the possibility of interactive traits.
Despite how important the underlying genes are for the formation of proteins and definition of physiology, they are not omnipotent in that regard. In fact, many other factors can influence how genetic traits relate to phenotypic traits: we’ve discussed a number of these in minor detail previously. An example includes interactions across different genes: these can be due to physiological traits encoded by the cumulative presence and nature of many loci (as in quantitative trait loci and polygenic adaptation). Alternatively, one gene may translate to multiple different physiological characters if it shows pleiotropy.
From an evolutionary standpoint again, epigenetics can similarly influence the ‘bang for a buck’ of particular genes. Being able to translate a single gene into many different forms, and for this to be linked to environmental conditions, allows organisms to adapt to a variety of new circumstances without the need for specific adaptive genes to be available. Following this logic, epigenetic variation might be critically important for species with naturally (or unnaturally) low genetic diversity to adapt into the future and survive in an ever-changing world. Thus, epigenetic information might paint a more optimistic outlook for the future: although genetic variation is, without a doubt, one of the most fundamental aspects of adaptability, even horrendously genetically depleted populations and species might still be able to be saved with the right epigenetic diversity.
Managing and conserving threatened and endangered species in the wild is a difficult process. There are a large number of possible threats, outcomes, and it’s often not clear which of these (or how many of these) are at play at any one given time. Thankfully, there are also a large number of possible conservation tools that we might be able to use to protect, bolster and restore species at risk.
This can lead to a particular paradigm of conservation management: keeping everything separate and pure is ‘best practice’. The logic is that, as these different groups have evolved slightly differently from one another (although there is often a lot of grey area about ‘differently enough’), mixing these groups together is a bad idea. Particularly, this is relevant when we consider translocations (“it’s never acceptable to move an organism from one ESU into another”) and captive breeding programs (“it’s never acceptable to breed two organisms together from different ESUs”). So, why not? Why does it matter if they’re a little different?
Well, the classic reasoning is based on a concept called ‘outbreeding depression’. We’ve mentioned outbreeding depression before, and it is a key concept kept in mind when developing conservation programs. The simplest explanation for outbreeding depression is that evolution, through the strict process of natural selection, has pushed particularly populations to evolve certain genetic variants for a certain selective pressure. These can vary across populations, and it may mean that populations are locally adapted to a specific set of environmental conditions, with the specific set of genetic variants that best allow them to do this.
However, when you mix in the genetic variants that have evolved in a different population, by introducing a foreign individual and allowing them to breed, you essentially ‘tarnish’ the ‘pure’ gene pool of that population with what could be very bad (maladaptive) genes. The hybrid offspring of ‘native’ and this foreign individual will be less adaptive than their ‘pure native’ counterparts, and the overall adaptiveness of the population will decrease as those new variants spread (depending on the number introduced, and how negative those variants are).
You might be familiar with inbreeding depression, which is based on the loss of genetic diversity from having too similar individuals breeding together to produce very genetically ‘weak’ offspring through inbreeding. Outbreeding depression could be thought of as the opposite extreme; breeding too different individuals introduced too many ‘bad’ alleles into the population, diluting the ‘good’ alleles.
It might sound awfully purist to only preserve the local genetic diversity, and to assume that any new variants could be bad and tarnish the gene pool. And, surprisingly enough, this is an area of great debate within conservation genetics.
So, what’s the balance between the two? Is introducing new genetic variation a bad idea, and going to lead to outbreeding depression; or a good idea, and lead to genetic rescue? Of course, many of the details surrounding the translocation of new genetic material is important: how different are the populations? How different are the environments (i.e. natural selection) between them? How well will the target population take up new individuals and genes?
Overall, however, the more recent and well-supported conclusion is that fears regarding outbreeding depression are often strongly exaggerated. Bad alleles that have been introduced into a population can be rapidlypurged by natural selection, and the likelihood of a strongly maladaptive allele spreading throughout the population is unlikely. Secondly, given the lack of genetic diversity in the target population, most that need the genetic rescue are so badly maladaptive as it is (due to genetic drift and lack of available adaptive alleles) that introducing new variants is unlikely to make the situation much worse.
That said, outbreeding depression is not an entirely trivial concept and there are always limitations in genetic rescue procedures. For example, it would be considered a bad idea to mix two different species together and make hybrids, since the difference between two species, compared to two populations, can be a lot stronger and not necessarily a very ‘natural’ process (whereas populations can mix and disjoin relatively regularly).
The reality of conservation management
Conservation science is, at its core, a crisis discipline. It exists solely as an emergency response to the rapid extinction of species and loss of biodiversity across the globe. The time spent trying to evaluate the risk of outbreeding depression – instead of immediately developing genetic rescue programs – can cause species to tick over to the afterlife before we get a clear answer. Although careful consideration and analysis is a requirement of any good conservation program, preventing action due to almost paranoid fear is not a luxury endangered species can afford.
We’ve discussed standing genetic variation before on The G-CAT, but often in a different light (and phrasing). For example, when we’ve talked about founder effect: that is, when a population is formed from only a few different individuals which causes it to be very genetically depauperate. In populations under strong founder effect, there is very little standing genetic variation for natural selection to act upon. This has long been an enigma for many pest species: how have they managed to proliferate so widely when they often originate from so few individuals and lack genetic diversity?
Evolution is a constant, endless force which seeks to push and shape species based on the context of their environment: sometimes rapidly, sometimes much more gradually. Although we often think of discrete points of evolution (when one species becomes two, when a particular trait evolves), it is nevertheless a continual force that influences changes in species. These changes are often difficult to ‘unevolve’ and have a certain ‘evolutionary inertia’ to them; because of these factors, it’s often critical to understand how a history of evolution has generated the organisms we see today.
What do I mean when I say evolutionary history? Well, the term is fairly diverse and can relate to the evolution of particular traits or types of traits, or the genetic variation and changes related to these changes. The types of questions and points of interest of evolutionary history can depend at which end of the timescale we look at: recent evolutionary histories, and the genetics related to them, will tell us different information to very ancient evolutionary histories. Let’s hop into our symbolic DeLorean and take a look back in time, shall we?
Very recent evolutionary history: pedigrees and populations
While we might ordinarily consider ‘evolutionary history’ to refer to events that happened thousands or millions of years ago, it can still be informative to look at history just a few generations ago. This often involves looking at pedigrees, such as in breeding programs, and trying to see how very short term and rapid evolution may have occurred; this can even include investigating how a particular breeding program might accidentally be causing the species to evolve to adapt to captivity! Rarely does this get referred to as true evolutionary history, but it fits on the spectrum, so I’m going to count it. We might also look at how current populations are evolving differently to one another, to try and predict how they’ll evolve into the future (and thus determine which ones are most at risk, which ones have critically important genetic diversity, and the overall survivability of the total species). This is the basis of ‘evolutionarily significant units’ or ESUs which we previously discussed on The G-CAT.
A little further back: phylogeography and species
A little further back, we might start to look at how different populations have formed or changed in semi-recent history (usually looking at the effect of human impacts: we’re really good at screwing things up I’m sorry to say). This can include looking at how populations have (or have not) adapted to new pressures, how stable populations have been over time, or whether new populations are being ‘made’ by recent barriers. At this level of populations and some (or incipient) species, we can find the field of ‘phylogeography’, which involves the study of how historic climate and geography have shaped the evolution of species or caused new species to evolve.
Phylogeography is also component for determining and understanding ‘biodiversity hotspots’; that is, regions which have generated high levels of species diversity and contain many endemic species and populations, such as tropical hotspots or remote temperate regions. These are naturally of very high conservation value and contribute a huge amount to Earth’s biodiversity, ecological functions and potential for us to study evolution in action.
Deep, deep history: phylogenetics and the origin of species (groups)
Even further back, we start to delve into the more traditional concept of evolutionary history. We start to look at how species have formed; what factors caused them to become new species, how stable the new species are, and what are the genetic components underlying the change. This subfield of evolution is called ‘phylogenetics’, and relates to understanding how species or groups of species have evolved and are related to one another.
Sometimes, this includes trying to look at how particular diagnostic traits have evolved in a certain group, like venom within snakes or eusocial groups in bees. Phylogenetic methods are even used to try and predict which species of plants might create compounds which are medically valuable (like aspirin)! Similarly, we can try and predict how invasive a pest species may be based on their phylogenetic (how closely related the species are) and physiological traits in order to safeguard against groups of organisms that are likely to run rampant in new environments. It’s important to understand how and why these traits have evolved to get a good understanding of exactly how the diversity of life on Earth came about.
Phylogenetics also allows us to determine which species are the most ‘evolutionarily unique’; all the special little creatures of plant Earth which represent their own unique types of species, such as the tuataraor the platypus. Naturally, understanding exactly how precious and unique these species are suggests we should focus our conservation attention and particularly conserve them, since there’s nothing else in the world that even comes close!
Who cares what happened in the past right? Well, I do, and you should too! Evolution forms an important component of any conservation management plan, since we obviously want to make sure our species can survive into the future (i.e. adapt to new stressors). Trying to maintain the most ‘evolvable’ groups, particularly within breeding programs, can often be difficult when we have to balance inbreeding depression (not having enough genetic diversity) with outbreeding depression (obscuring good genetic diversity by adding bad genetic diversity into the gene pool). Often, we can best avoid these by identifying which populations are evolutionarily different to one another (see ESUs) and using that as a basis, since outbreeding vs. inbreeding depression can be very difficult to measure. This all goes back to the concept of ‘adaptive potential’ that we’ve discussed a few times before.
In any case, a keen understanding of the evolutionary trajectory of a species is a crucial component for conservation management and to figure out the processes and outcomes of evolution in the real world. Thus, evolutionary history remains a key area of research for both conservation and evolution-related studies.
I’ve mentioned a few times in the past that my own research centres around a particular group of fish: the pygmy perches. When I tell people about them, sometimes I get the question “why do you want to study them?” And to be fair, it’s a good question: there must be something inherently interesting about them to be worth researching. And there is plenty.
Pygmy perches are a group of very small (usually 4-6cm) freshwater fish native to temperate Australia: they’re found throughout the southwest corner of WA and the southeast of Australia, stretching from the mouth of the Murray River in SA up to lower Queensland (predominantly throughout the Murray-Darling Basin) and even in northern Tasmania. There’s a massive space in the middle where they aren’t found: this is the Nullarbor Plain, and is a significant barrier for nearly all freshwater species (since it holds practically no water).
The group consists of 2 genera (Nannoperca and Nannatherina) and 7 currently described species, although there could be as many as 10 actual species (see ‘cryptic species’: I’ll elaborate on this more in future posts…). They’re very picky about their habitat, preferring to stay within low flow waterbodies with high vegetation cover, such as floodplains and lowland creeks. Most species have a lifespan of a couple years, with different breeding times depending on the species.
Why study pygmy perches?
So, they’re pretty cute little fish. But unfortunately, that’s not usually enough justification to study a particular organism. So, why does the Molecular Ecology Lab choose to use pygmy perch as one (of several) focal groups? Well, there’s a number of different reasons.
The main factors that contribute to their research interest are their other characteristics: because they’re so small and habitat specialists, they often form small, isolated populations that are naturally separated by higher flow rivers and environmental barriers. They also appear to have naturally very low genetic diversity: ordinarily, we’d expect that they wouldn’t be great at adapting and surviving over a long time. Yet, they’ve been here for a long time: so how do they do it? That’s the origin of many of the research questions for pygmy perches.
The influence of the historic environment on evolution
From an evolutionary standpoint, pygmy perches are unique in more ways than just their genetic diversity. They’re relatively ancient, with the origin of the group estimated at around 40 million years ago. Since then, they’ve diversified into a number of different species and have spread all over the southern half of the Australian continent, demonstrating multiple movements across Australia in that time. This pattern is unusual for freshwater organisms, and this combined with their ancient nature makes them ideal candidates for studying the influence of historic environment, climate and geology on the evolution and speciation of freshwater animals in Australia. And that’s the focus of my PhD (although not exclusively; plenty of other projects have explored questions in this area).
Of course, it’s all well and good to study the natural, evolutionary history of an organism as if it hasn’t had any other influences. But we all know how dramatic the impact humans have on the environment are and unfortunately for many pygmy perch species this means that they are threatened or endangered and at risk of extinction. Their biggest threats are introduced predators (such as the redfin perch and European carp), alteration of waterways (predominantly for agriculture) and of course, climate change. For some populations, local extinction has already happened: some populations of the Yarra pygmy perch (N. obscura) are now completely gone from the wild. Many of these declines occurred during the Millennium Drought, where the aforementioned factors were exacerbated by extremely low water availability and consistently high temperatures. So naturally, a significant proportion of the work on pygmy perches is focused on their conservation, and trying to boost and recover declining populations.
This includes the formation of genetics-basedbreeding programs for two species, the southern pygmy perch and Yarra pygmy perch. A number of different organisations are involved in this ongoing process, including a couple of schools! These programs are informed by our other studies of pygmy perch evolution and adaptive potential and hopefully combined we can save these species from becoming totally extinct.
Hopefully, some of this convinces you that pygmy perch are actually rather interesting creatures (I certainly think so!). Pygmy perch research can offer a unique insight into evolutionary history, historical biogeography, and conservation management. Also, they’re kinda cute….so that’s gotta count for something, right? If you wanted to find out more about pygmy perch research, and get updates on our findings, be sure to check out the Molecular Ecology Lab Facebook page or our website!
Sometimes when I talk about the concept of conservation genetics to friends and family outside of the field, there can be some confusion about what this actually means. Usually, it’s assumed that means the conservation of genetics: that is, instead of trying to conserve individual animals or plants, we try to conserve specific genes. While in some cases this is partially true (there might be genes of particular interest that we want to maintain in a wild population), often what we actually mean is using genetic information to inform conservation management and to give us the best chance of long-term rescue for endangered species.
See, the DNA of individuals contains much more information than just the genes that make up an organism. By looking at the number, frequency or distribution of changes and differences in DNA across individuals, populations or species, we can see a variety of different patterns. Typically, genetics-based conservation analysis is based on a single unifying concept: that different forces create different patterns in the genetic make-up of species and populations, and that these can be statistically evaluated using genetic data. The exact type or scale of effect depends on how the data is collected and what analysis we use to evaluate that data, although we could do multiple types of analysis using the same dataset.
Oftentimes, we want to know about the current or historical state of a species or population to best understand how to move forward: by understanding where a species has come from, what it has been affected by, and how it has responded to different pressures, we can start to suggest and best manage these species into the future.
However, there are lots of possible avenues for exploration: here are just a few…
Evolutionary significant units (ESUs) and management units (MUs)
One commonly used application of genetic information for conservation is the designation of what we call ‘Evolutionary Significant Units’ (ESUs). Using genetics, we can determine the boundaries of particular populations which correspond to their own unique evolutionary groups. These are often the results of historical processes which have separated and driven the independent evolution of each ESU, usually with low or no gene flow across these units. Generally, managing and conserving each of these can lead to overall more robust management of the species as a whole by making sure certain groups that have unique and potentially critical adaptations are maintained in the wild. Although ESUs can sometimes be arguable (particularly when there is some, but not much, gene flow across units), it forms an important aspect of conservation designations.
In cases of shorter term separations across these populations, where there are noticeable differences in the genetics of the populations but not necessarily massively different evolutionary histories, conservationists will sometimes refer to ‘Management Units’ (MUs). These have much weaker evolutionary pressure behind them but might be indicative of very recent impacts, such as human-driven fragmentation of habitat or contemporary climate change. MUs often reflect very sudden and recent changes in populations and might have profound implications for the future of these groups: thus, they are an important way of assessing the current state of the species. The next couple of figures demonstrate this from one of my colleagues’ research papers.
The two can be thought of as part of the same hierarchy, with ESUs reflecting more historic, evolutionary groups and MUs reflecting more recent (but not necessarily evolutionary) groups. For conservation management, this has traditionally meant that individuals from one ESU were managed independent of one another (to preserve their ‘pure’ evolutionary history) whilst translocations of individuals across MUs were common and often recommended. This is based on the idea that mixing very genetically different populations could cause adaptive genes in each population to become ‘diluted’, negatively affecting the ability of the populations to evolve: this is referred to as ‘outbreeding depression’ (OD).
However, more recent research has suggested that the concerns with OD from mixing across ESUs are less problematic than previously thought. Analysis of the effect of OD versus not supplementing populations with more genetic diversity has shown that OD is not the more dangerous option, and there is a current paradigm push to acknowledge the importance of mixing ESUs where needed.
Adaptive potential and future evolution
Understanding the genetic basis of evolution also forms an important research area for conservation management. This is particularly relevant for ‘adaptive potential’: that is, the ability for a particular species or population to be able to adapt to a variety of future stressors based on their current state. It is generally understood that having lots of different variants (alleles) of genes in the total population or species is a critical part of evolution: the more variants there are, the more choices there are for natural selection to act upon.
We can estimate this from the amount of genetic diversity within the population, as well as by trying to understand their previous experiences with adaptation and evolution. For example, it is predicted that species which occur in much more climatically variable habitats (such as in desert regions) are more likely to be able to handle and tolerate future climate change scenarios since they’ve demonstrated the ability to adapt to new, more extreme environments before. Examples of this include the Australian rainbowfishes, which are found in pretty well every climatic region across the continent (and therefore must be very good at adapting to new, varying habitats!).
Genetics-based breeding programs and pedigrees
A much more direct use of genetic information for conservation is in designing breeding programs. We know that breeding related individuals can have very bad results for offspring (this is referred to as ‘inbreeding depression’): so obviously, we would avoid breeding siblings together. However, in complex breeding systems (such as polygamous animals), or in wild populations, it can be very difficult to evaluate relationships and overall relatedness.
That’s where genetics comes in: by looking at how similar or different the DNA of two individuals are, we can not only check what relationship they are (e.g. siblings, cousins, or very distantly related) but also get an exact value of their genetic relatedness. Since we know that having a diverse gene pool is critical for future adaptation and survival of a species, genetics-based breeding programs can maximise the amount of genetic diversity in following generations. We can even use a computer algorithm to make the very best of breeding groups, using a quirky program called SWINGER.
Taxonomy for conservation legislation
Another (slightly more complicated) application of genetics is the designation of species status. Large amounts of genetic information can often clarify complex issues of species descriptions (later issues of The G-CAT will discuss exactly how this works and why it’s not so straightforward…).
Why should we care what we call a species or not? Well, much of the protective legislation at the government level is designed at the species-level: legislative protections are often designated for a particular species, but doesn’t often distinguish particular populations. Thus, misidentified species can sometimes but lost if they were never detected as a unique species (and assumed to be just a population of another species). Alternatively, managing two species as one based on misidentification could mess with the evolutionary pathways of both by creating unfit hybrid species which do not naturally come into contact together (say, breeding individuals from one species with another because we thought they were the same species).
Additionally, if we assume that multiple different species are actually only one species, this can provide an overestimate of how well that species is doing. Although in total it might look like there are plenty of individuals of the species around, if this was actually made of 4 separate species then each one would be doing ¼ as well as we thought. This can feed back into endangered status classification and thus conservation management.
These are just some of the most common examples of applied genetics in conservation management. No doubt going into the future more innovative and creative methods of applying genetic information to maintaining threatened species and populations will become apparent. It’s an exciting time to be in the field and inspires hope that we may be able to save species before they disappear from the planet permanently.