As nature heads into a warmer, drier and more challenging future, new conservation tools – seed banks and frozen zoos, gene editing and assisted gene flow – hold promise for helping animal and plant populations in difficulty. The catch: New approaches must incorporate the strengths that species have developed for their local environments.
Mariah Meek collects brook trout, a species threatened by climate change
A group of biologists from Bioscience argue that innovations in understanding local adaptation can now be powerful tools to create a second chance when habitats are challenged by climate change.
Biologists have better identified the winning strategies that species have developed to adapt to their environment. This has led to new advances that can capitalize on these strategies by understanding the underlying genetics that allow a creature to tolerate climate change. This information can be used to target individuals for cryopreservation or banking – freezing the seeds of plants or animal cells resistant to heat stress or most at risk of extinction due to climate change.
The synergy of understanding and technology could create what could be a last option for some species.
“It’s really exciting that we are now at the point where we have the tools to identify and study the local adaptation of many conservation import species,” said Mariah Meekassistant professor of integrative biology in the College of Natural Sciences at Michigan State University. “This understanding was previously limited to abundant and highly studied species that could be manipulated and grown in controlled experiments. This has really hampered our chances of understanding the local adaptation of these difficult-to-raise species in a controlled environment. Now we can apply this understanding to help design our conservation actions and improve outcomes. »
In 2018, a group of biologists came together to consider how conservation could capitalize on emerging knowledge about local adaptation in a special session hosted by the Conservation Genetics Working Group. Society for Conservation Biology at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology. The effects of climate change were the obvious catalyst as all saw rapid effects on the populations they studied – fish, birds, wildflowers, frogs and mammals.
From this discussion grew the exploration of how new science could be applied to conservation challenges to provide more tools to turn possibilities into action, Meek said.
For example, conservation managers are now able to identify animal or plant populations that are struggling to adapt to environmental changes to target healthier populations with human-assisted gene flow. Assisted gene flow introduces individuals identified as having desirable fitness and genotypes into populations struggling to make the next generation more resilient.
“This approach could be used not only to infuse a struggling population with new genetic variation, the raw material of natural selection, but could also be used to pre-adapt a population facing rapid environmental change,” said Sarah Fitzpatrickassistant professor of integrative biology and WK Kellogg Biological Station faculty member. “If done correctly, this action can facilitate long-term persistence.”
The Meek Lab studies the genetics that control the tolerance of brook trout to heat stress, the only native eastern United States trout seriously threatened by warming water temperatures. Meek and his team combine studies of common gardens with genomic sequencing and climate predictions to identify both the populations most at risk from warming temperatures and the populations likely to harbor the genetic diversity needed to persist into the future. This information can help guide conservation actions, such as moving certain trout identified as resilient to warming temperatures to join threatened populations to support the long-term persistence of brook trout.
Information about local adaptation in the donor can help identify the best source for bringing new people into the struggling population, said co-author Cinnamon Mittan-Moreau, an MSU Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow mentored by Fitzpatrick. “It is important that local adaptation information is combined with a thorough knowledge of the species’ biology and threats.”
And, Mittan said, conservation must remain a global effort. For example, if the greatest threat to a species is habitat availability, habitat restoration might have a higher priority than increasing genetic diversity or introducing potentially adaptive traits. Factors such as illness or logistical constraints must also be taken into account. Collaboration between wildlife managers and genetic researchers is essential to identify the most important traits to study for local adaptation, and the most practical and feasible management actions to take.
In addition to Meek, Mittan-Moreau and Fitzpatrick, who are all members of MSU’s Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Program“Understanding Local Adaptation to Prepare People for Climate Change” was written by Erik Beever, Soraia Barbosa, Nicholas Fletcher, Brendan Reid, Shane Campbell-Staton, Nancy Green, and Jessica Hellmann.
This story originally appeared on the College of Natural Sciences website.