Iris Reinula

Genetic diversity monitoring in Europe is incoherent and overlooks potential climate change impacts

Monitoring of the genetic diversity of wild species in Europe is inadequate and fragmented, according to an international study involving the University of Tartu published on 15 January. As a result, the loss of important genetic variants in plant and animal populations that ensure biodiversity can go unnoticed.

Climate change put significant pressure on many species, especially plant and animal populations near trailing climatic niche margins, for whom adaptation is particularly important. The survival of populations is increasingly influenced by their ability to withstand extreme heat or drought, but also by their capacity to cope with new species inhabiting a particular area. When the environment changes in a way that is unfavourable to plant and animal populations, it is the variability in DNA sequence, or genetic diversity, that allows populations to adapt to new conditions and avoid extinction or habitat change. 

The international study, published in the top ecology journal Nature Ecology & Evolution and involving 60 universities and 31 research institutes, gave an overview of genetic diversity monitoring across Europe. The study also made suggestions on which populations in European regions should be monitored more closely for genetic diversity. 

"The state of genetic diversity monitoring is not good here either," said Tsipe Aavik, Associate Professor in Macroecology at the University of Tartu, who led the study in Estonia. “Although several studies have been carried out in Estonia, they are mostly limited to measurements taken at a single point in time – they lack temporal repetition and a systematic approach – which is why most of the studies here do not fit the criteria for monitoring. Conservation management plans for rare species, consider genetic diversity, if included at all, a less important level of biodiversity. Therefore, we do not have an overview of how the genetic diversity of the populations of even a few species in different groups of organisms has changed over time, not to mention whether and to what extent Estonian plant and animal populations are threatened by changes in environmental conditions," Aavik added. 

According to Peter Pearman, corresponding author of the study, we risk losing critically important genetic variants by neglecting genetic diversity. With effective monitoring, we could identify areas where these gene variants are found and ensure the adaptability and long-term survival of the species there. Knowledge gathered from monitoring data would also allow for better planning of land use and support ecosystem protection and restoration. This enables maintaining biodiversity and the benefits that species provide, such as crop pollination, natural pest control or climate regulation. 

Read more about the study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution

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