Translating genomics research into conservation efforts
by Jane Murphy
Here at Wellcome Connecting Science, we are continually evolving our learning and training programme to reflect the latest and emerging areas of interest for scientists working across genomics. Initiatives such as the Earth Biogenome Project, and the Darwin Tree of Life project, which includes our colleagues at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute as key partners, have made whole genome sequencing a reality for many organisms. By extension, population genomics of species has also become possible, and genomic insights from population studies are now being applied for biodiversity conservation.
To explore the possibilities for population-level genomics for conservation, and to share advances in analytical approaches that could mutually benefit population genomics in diverse communities, we are bringing together experts for our first conference on Conservation genomics at the population level.
Ahead of November’s meeting, we asked Professor Dario Riccardo Valenzano, from the Leibniz Institute on Aging, and Valenzano Lab to explain why understanding species genomics is important for conservation and to expand on some of the challenges faced.
Why is genome analysis across populations important for species preservation?
DRV: It helps establish which populations are at higher risk of endogamy, which could represent a threat to the long-term preservation of the population, and more broadly of the species. Furthermore, genome analysis across populations can help trace past events of hybridisation and gene flow among populations; this could help design strategies aimed at merging (e.g. via corridors) populations, that although spatially distant, are genetically homogeneous.
What are some of the challenges facing conservation genomics and their application at the population level?
DRV: There are three critical challenges affecting research in this area:
- access to sufficient funds that allow covering population-based genome sequencing, which requires sequencing of several hundred, if not thousands of individuals;
- the logistics and infrastructure necessary for sampling DNA from wild populations, which requires coordination between scientists and local authorities;
- access to qualified scientific personnel who are able to generate, analyse and properly interpret data.
What approaches are being developed to collect and analyse genomic data from across populations?
DRV: Largely, there is an increase in high-throughput bioinformatic and molecular protocols, enabling scientists to efficiently extract the DNA of target species from environmental DNA (eDNA), as well as the development of databases and cloud-based resources to safely store the generated data.
“Rather that exporting tissue samples across field sites and laboratories, it is becoming more affordable to generate data on site, thanks to the development of portable, low cost and reliable laboratory equipment that can be comfortably carried to the field.”
Professor Dario Riccardo Valenzano, Leibniz Institute on Aging
How do you see these genomics techniques contributing to conservation efforts?
DRV: Whether genomic techniques will contribute to conservation efforts will depend, in-part, on factors outside of these methods themselves; largely relating to logistics, project organisation and people management.
In what ways can scientists and practitioners influence the translation of genomic research into biodiversity conservation?
DRV: By generating results and proof-of-concept reference studies that prove to local authorities and governments that genomics is an irreplaceable tool to help conservation efforts.
What are you particularly looking forward to from the Conservation Genomics at the Population Level conference?
DRV: My background is evolutionary genomics and population genetics. Conservation is a relatively new research topic for me, to which I was increasingly exposed to during my field work activity in Zimbabwe, over the past 12 years; so I am looking forward to getting to know scientists and staff working at the confluence between genomics and conservation.
This brand new meeting will explore the different challenges and applications of population-level conservation genomics, through focused discussions on a variety of interesting topics, including:
- application of conservation genomics to threatened species
- detecting adaptation in populations
- application of eDNA approaches
- linking genotypes to phenotypes for conservation
- detecting and understanding the effects of deleterious variation
There will also be an opportunity to pose questions to our panel members, who will be discussing the translation of research into conservation efforts.
Join scientists working across population and evolutionary genomics to learn, exchange ideas, and build valuable relationships in the evolving sphere.
Register for an in-person place until 1 November
Virtual places are available until 22 November
You can register, learn more about our speakers, and download the draft programme, here