We know that genetic diversity is eroding, that it is happening fast, and that as a consequence, nature is losing its resilience at a time when we need it most, says lead author Sean Hoban, of The Morton Arboretum, USA.
The loss is that of genetic diversity – the variation in the DNA code among individuals and populations within a species that is the key to adaptation in times of change. Genetic diversity isn’t visible to the eye, and in many cases,  it decreases before impacts are evident in a species’ population.

Threatened resource

This hidden crisis has long been neglected. Genetic diversity within species underlies resilient and diverse ecosystems, and is a resource for innovation and a margin of safety to protect the welfare of society in a changing world, says Linda Laikre, population geneticist at Stockholm University and one of the authors.  

More than 50 percent loss

The authors also show that the recently reported 68 percent decline in the Living Planet Index will result in dramatic losses of genetic diversity. Many species are predicted to experience more than 50 percent loss if no protective actions are taken.
This is already making natural and human systems, from coral reefs to farms to trees planted in cities, highly vulnerable to extreme events, says Linda Laikre.

Commitment is needed

Monitoring genetic diversity, which means directly analyzing DNA from individuals and populations within species over time, can help detect this vulnerability. Technique that can be used for monitoring is rapidly becoming more affordable for more kinds of species. But genetic diversity needs more than just the impressive developments in genomic sequencing technology seen in the past 20 years.
Commitments by countries and non-state actors like cities and NGOs are needed and can make a difference to safeguard this foundation of biodiversity says Cristiano Vernesi, chair of the GBIKE COST Action, which helped contribute to the study.

Explaining graphic
Schematic of including genetic data in monitoring and policy, from collecting genetic and nongenetic data, to sequencing, analysis and archiving, to aggregation and indicator calculation, to policy and implementation of actions. Image: Oxford university press

Synthesized knowledge

A suite of developments in the past decade have revolutionized the field of genetic monitoring and conservation with for example new technology, innovative policy, growing collaborations and capacity building efforts, and databases that store exponentially increasing genetic data.

Technology must be made available globally, guidance is needed on its most efficient use, data must be made open and accessible, models of policy and law are needed, and knowledge must be synthesized, the authors in the study say.


Large scale monitoring possible

Additionally, scientists are devising easy to measure proxies or substitutes for genetic data that will allow monitoring in countries experiencing technological and financial barriers to genetic laboratories.
These developments make large scale monitoring of this hidden level of biodiversity possible. For example, the genetic community now embraces the FAIR principles - that data should be findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable - which means that data collected for basic research can be reused for conservation, and vice versa,  says Cristiano Vernesi.

Palmyra Palm (Borassus aethiopum) near Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal

Palmyra Palm (Borassus aethiopum) near Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal. In the new article in BioScience, Sean Hoban and colleagues discuss the urgent need for monitoring of the genetic diversity within threatened flora and fauna like this. Photo: M. Patrick Griffith, Montgomery Botanical Center.

Biodiversity collaborations

Lastly, groups of scientists are venturing outside the academic environment to build collaborations, especially in areas with large biodiversity knowledge gaps. Based on these and other new capabilities, the authors call on countries to develop strong programs to monitor genetic diversity, and make formal commitments to conserve it, before it is too late.
Genetic diversity warrants similar attention and effort as species and ecosystems. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is currently negotiating global commitments for biodiversity for the next 10 years and beyond. CBD has neglected genetic diversity of wild animals and plants in the past and now there is an urgent need for bold commitments to stand a chance to revert the negative trends, says Linda Laikre. We provide direct tools and guidelines for such commitments.

For more information please contact:

  • Sean Hoban (shoban@mortonarb.org)
  • Linda Laikre (linda.laikre@popgen.su.se)
  • Cristiano Vernesi (cristiano.vernesi@fmach.it)