Within genetics there are many areas of research, each impacting on our lives in a different way. From the genetic engineering of animals and plants, to gene therapy in medical treatment, and the use of DNA in genetic profiling.
Agriculture, medicine and security are just some of the areas of application. But how can genetics and genomics benefit wildlife?
As scientists celebrate the successful genome sequencing of golden eagles, we’ll look at what this breakthrough means for the conservation of this iconic bird of prey.
Can conservation genomics really help turn the tide species loss?
The dawn of genetics
Where did it all begin? The emergence of genetics can be traced back to the mid-19th century, in a Moravian monastery. Gregor Mendel was a resident monk and a keen botanist. Through his experimental work with the hybridisation of pea plants, he succeeded in establishing the first rules of heredity.
The significance of his findings did not transpire until much later. At the turn of the 20th century other European scientists rediscovered and verified his laws, marking the starting point of the modern age of genetics.
Genetics vs genomics
These are two terms that are often (and incorrectly) used interchangeably. Here are two short definitions to clarify things:
- Genetics is the study of single genes in living organisms and their role in the way traits or conditions are passed from one generation to the next.
- Genomics is a term that describes the study of all parts of an organism’s genes.
Human Genome Project
As you may know, there are 23 pairs of chromosomes in the human genome. In 1990, scientists began working on the Human Genome Project with the aim of sequencing the human genome. By sequencing we mean determining the exact order of the bases in a strand of DNA.
By 2003 scientists had fully sequenced the human genome, which would lead the way for further research, especially in medical science.
25 Genomes Project
Since the landmark completion of the human genome, scientists have began investigating genomes of other species. The Wellcome Sanger Institute has played a key role in this, sequencing the genomes of zebrafish, pigs, gorillas, mosquitos to name a few.
Their latest initiative is called the 25 Genomes Project, which aims to sequence the genomes of 25 other species, representing five key areas of biodiversity in Britain. The first of these was completed this week – the golden eagle.
Conservation genomics in the news
The announcement of the golden eagle genome sequencing attracted a lot of media attention. As the BBC reported, the study could be ‘a conservation game changer’ for the species.
With around 300,000 golden eagles in the world and around 10,000 pairs living in Europe, they don’t face extinction any time soon. In fact, the species is listed as ‘least concern’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
So why focus on the golden eagle?
Well, as an iconic species, they are likely to generate more public interest than, say, a newt! But there’s actually a less cynical reason behind the decision.
While the global population of golden eagles is stable, there are only 508 breeding pairs of golden eagles in the UK, which are mostly restricted to the Scottish Highlands and Islands. It’s precisely in this kind of ecological context where conservation genomics can be most effective.
As Dr Rob Ogden, Head of Conservation Genetics at the University of Edinburgh explains:
“With the golden eagle genome sequence, we will be able to compare the eagles being relocated to southern Scotland to those already in the area to ensure we are creating a genetically diverse population.”
Here’s an example of how genomics can be a valuable tool within a broader conservation effort. However, we must be careful not to get too excited; it is not a silver bullet.
In the case of the golden eagle, an apex predator, relocated birds will only thrive if the local habitat is conducive to their survival.