Species which exist in fragmented, isolated and reduced populations have elevated extinction risk. Not only are they more susceptible to demographic and environmental stochasticity, which can easily wipe out small populations, but they also suffer from a range of genetic impacts. Notably, populations often lose significant amounts of genetic diversity as they reduce in size, potentially losing important adaptive diversity enabling them to respond to current and future environmental change. At the same time, random genetic drift becomes stronger relative to natural selection, reducing the efficacy of selection to be able to increase the frequency of favourable alleles and reduce the frequency of maladaptive ones. Together, these impacts create feedback loops which hasten the decline into the extinction vortex.
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.
Given the strong influence of genetic identity on the process and outcomes of the speciation process, it seems a natural connection to use genetic information to study speciation and species identities. There is a plethora of genetics-based tools we can use to investigate how speciation occurs (both the evolutionary processes and the external influences that drive it). One clear way to test whether two populations of a particular species are actually two different species is to investigate genes related to reproductive isolation: if the genetic differences demonstrate reproductive incompatibilities across the two populations, then there is strong evidence that they are separate species (at least under the Biological Species Concept; see Part One for why!). But this type of analysis requires several tools: 1) knowledge of the specific genes related to reproduction (e.g. formation of sperm and eggs, genital morphology, etc.), 2) the complete and annotated genome of the species (to be able to find and analyse the right genes properly) and 3) a good amount of data for the populations in question. As you can imagine, for people working on non-model species (i.e. ones that haven’t had the same history and detail of research as, say, humans and mice), this can be problematic. So, instead, we can use other genetic information to investigate and suggest patterns and processes related to the formation of new species.
Is reproductive isolation naturally selected for or just a consequence?
A fundamental aspect of studies of speciation is a “chicken or the egg”-type paradigm: does natural selection directly select for rapid reproductive isolation, preventing interbreeding; or as a secondary consequence of general adaptive differences, over a long history of evolution? This might be a confusing distinction, so we’ll dive into it a little more.
The reproductive incompatibility of two populations (thus making them species) is often intrinsically linked to the genetic make-up of those two species. Some conflicts in the genetics of Population 1 and Population 2 may mean that a hybrid having half Population 1 genes and half Population 2 genes will have serious fitness problems (such as sterility or developmental problems). Dramatic genetic differences, particularly a difference in the number of chromosomes between the two sources, is a significant component of reproductive isolation and is usually to blame for sterile hybrids such as ligers, zorse and mules.
We can study the process of speciation in the natural world without focussing on the ‘reproductive isolation’ element of species identity as well. For many species, we are unlikely to have the detail (such as an annotated genome and known functions of genes related to reproduction) required to study speciation at this level in any case. Instead, we might choose to focus on the different factors that are currently influencing the process of speciation, such as how the environmental, demographic or adaptive contexts of populations plays a role in the formation of new species. Many of these questions fall within the domain of phylogeography; particularly, how the historical environment has shaped the diversity of populations and species today.
Although these can help answer some questions related to speciation, new tools are constantly needed to provide a clearer picture of the process. Understanding how and why new species are formed is a critical aspect of understanding the world’s biodiversity. How can we predict if a population will speciate at some point? What environmental factors are most important for driving the formation of new species? How stable are species identities, really? These questions (and many more) remain elusive for a wide variety of life on Earth.