Molecular Ecology Lab (MEL)

Science Center Objects

The Molecular Ecology Laboratory applies genetic and genomic technologies to address a variety of complex questions and conservation issues facing the management of the Nation's fish and wildlife resources. Together with our partners, we design and implement studies to document genetic diversity and the distribution of genetic variation among individuals, populations, and species. Information from these studies is used to support wildlife-management planning and conservation actions. Current and past studies have provided information to assess taxonomic boundaries, inform listing decisions made under the Endangered Species Act, identify unique or genetically depauperate populations, estimate population size or survival rates, develop management or recovery plans, breed wildlife in captivity, relocate wildlife from one location to another, and assess the effects of environmental change.   

 

Image: Greater Sage Grouse
A male Greater Sage-grouse. Photo by: Stephen Ting, Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Conservation Genomics

Conservation genomics is a new field of science that applies novel whole-genome sequencing technology to problems in conservation biology. Rapidly advancing molecular technologies are revolutionizing wildlife ecology, greatly expanding our understanding of wildlife and their interactions with the environment.  In the same way that molecular tools such as microsatellites revolutionized wildlife management in the past, evolving genomic-level data collection techniques are beginning to offer powerful ways to assess biodiversity, taxonomy, hybridization, diets, demography, disease resistance and outbreaks, and even local adaptation. 

 

 

 

Image shows sagebrush lands with cloudy sky
Sagebrush lands in southwestern Wyoming (photograph by Anna Wilson, USGS).

 

 

Landscape Genetics

Landscape genetics is a recently developed discipline that involves the merger of molecular population genetics and landscape ecology.  The goal of this new field of study is to provide information about the interaction between landscape features and microevolutionary processes such as gene flow, genetic drift, and selection allowing for the understanding of processes that generate genetic structure across space.

 

 

 

 

A male lesser prairie-chicken.
A male lesser prairie-chicken. Photo by Dan Wundrock, Public domain.

 

 

Population Genetics

Population genetics is an area of research that examines the distribution of genetic variation and levels of genetic diversity within and between populations. This information provides insights into the level of connectedness of populations throughout a species’ range and can be used to identify unique populations or those with low levels of genetic diversity. 

 

 

 

A mountain lion in a pen at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife offices in Fort Collins, CO.
A mountain lion in a pen at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife offices in Fort Collins, CO.

 

Molecular Tagging

Molecular tagging is a new application of molecular genetic techniques to traditional mark-recapture methodology designed to address situations where traditional methods fail. In such studies, non-invasively collected samples (such as feces, feathers, or fur) are used as a source of DNA that is then genotyped at multiple loci such that each individual animal can be uniquely identified. Thus, each individual’s DNA represents a unique tag analogous to a band or other mark used in traditional mark-recapture studies.

 

 

Brown treesnake
A brown treesnake in the grass. USGS photo.

 

 

Environmental DNA (eDNA)

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is organismal DNA that can be found in the environment. Environmental DNA originates from cellular material shed by organisms (via skin, excrement, etc.) into aquatic or terrestrial environments that can be sampled and monitored using new molecular methods. Such methodology is important for the early detection of invasive species as well as the detection of rare and cryptic species.

 

 

Image: Cascades Frog
A Cascades frog perched on moss. Public domain.

 

 

 

Taxonomic Uncertainty

Taxonomic uncertainty can be assessed using genetic data, along with other lines of evidence (such as morphological and behavioral characteristics). Such data can be used to identify and assess taxonomic boundaries (species, subspecies, hybrids) and in many cases redefine them. Such delineations are highly relevant for species status determinations (endangered, threatened, or at-risk).

 

 

 

Image: Female Broad-Tailed Hummingbird
A female broad-tailed hummingbird visiting a flower near the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. Public domain.

 

 

 

Family Relationships and Mating Systems

Family relationships and mating systems can be investigated and defined using genetic data. This information is potentially important for conservation and management as it may influence effective population size and levels of genetic diversity.

 

 

 

 

Image: Female Grizzly Bear with Cub
A female grizzly with a cub. Public domain.

 

 

 

Population Models

Population models can incorporate genetic data to assess potential impacts of different management strategies on connectivity, effective population size, and genetic diversity. 

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