Real-World Applications of Molecular Genetics

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Real-World Applications

Recent advances in molecular biology allow us to develop and apply the tools and concepts of molecular genetics to the conservation of biological resources. Working with our partners, we design and implement studies that provide genetic and genomic information for a broad range of applications, as detailed below.

Real-World Applications

Recent advances in molecular biology allow us to develop and apply the tools and concepts of molecular genetics to the conservation of biological resources. Working with our partners, we design and implement studies that provide genetic and genomic information for a broad range of applications, as detailed below.

 

Lesser Prairie Chicken
Scientists are researching the effects of environmental change on crucial wildlife habitat in the South Central U.S. USGS photo.

Population structure – We can quantify genetic differences between populations and, consequently, the level of gene flow and movement among populations throughout a species' range.

Population health and history – Current genetic diversity and historical population bottlenecks can be assessed through the analysis of genetic and genomic data. 

Assess taxonomic uncertainty – Information on genetic distinctiveness, along with other lines of evidence such as morphological and behavioral characteristics, can be used to identify and potentially redefine the existing taxonomic classification of a given species or subspecies. Such delineations are highly relevant for species status determinations (endangered, threatened, or at-risk).

 

Wild horses
Wild horses running on the prairie. USGS photo.

 

 

Assess adaptive potential – With advancing genomic technology, it is now possible to locate and assess genes that may contribute to a species' ability to respond to environmental change (for example, climate change).

Landscape genetics – Genetic data can be used in conjunction with environmental data (for example, habitat, elevation, roads) to identify landscape features that function as barriers to movement for species.

Assess family relations/mating systems – Mating systems and parentage can be inferred through “genetic fingerprinting” of family members.

 

 

Polar bear mother and two cubs on the Beaufort Sea ice.
Polar bear mother and two cubs on the Beaufort Sea ice. Public domain.

Population modeling – Models can make use of genetic data to predict potential impacts of different management scenarios (for example, fertility control) on the genetic diversity of managed populations. 

Estimate population size and survival rates – DNA from non-invasively sampled individuals (using feathers, feces, or hair, for example) can be used as a molecular tag and analyzed with traditional mark-recapture techniques to estimate population size and survival rates.

Species identification – Molecular genetic tests can be used to identify the species and sometimes even the population of origin from a sample (feather, tissue, feces, hair) of unknown origin.

 

 

A male sage-grouse struts his stuff on his native sage steppe.
A male sage-grouse struts his stuff on his native sage steppe. Public domain.

 

Tracking migratory animals – Genetic differences between breeding populations may be used as a basis for assigning migratory animals (like birds, fish, and sea turtles) to a particular breeding population, even if animals are captured on migration or at another location far away from their breeding area.

Gender identification – The gender of an individual can be determined by isolating and analyzing molecular markers on the sex chromosomes; sometimes this is necessary when morphological or behavioral characteristics between males and females are indistinguishable.

 

 

Black bear cubs
Black bear cubs. Courtesy USFWS

 

 

Species detection – The presence of difficult-to-observe species can be inferred in an area by screening DNA in environmental samples (eDNA), like water and soil, for species-specific genetic markers. 

Dietary analysis – Feces or stomach contents can be screened to figure out what a particular animal has been eating. 

See our Molecular Ecology Lab Capabilities.