Genetics for Western Restoration and Conservation (GWRC)

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Research using genetic principles, methods, and data provides critical information for restoration and conservation science. Genetic research may rely only upon genomic sequencing techniques, which generate abundant, genome-wide DNA sequences that can provide a glimpse into a species’ evolutionary history and adaptations. Genetic research may also look at an organism’s physical traits to understand if and how they are passed from parents to offspring. Both types of research help address questions such as: How are species related to one another?; How often do populations within a species breed with one another?; What physical traits help individuals to survive in their habitat?; How have species responded to past climatic changes, and what does this tell us about how they may respond to future changes? Such research provides crucial knowledge when seeking successful restoration and conservation outcomes. Research by the Genetics for Western Restoration and Conservation (GWRC) group addresses these needs both for species of conservation concern and for common species that are the workhorses for restoration of degraded lands across the western United States.

Background and Importance:

Yellow bee plant (Cleome lutea) visited by a monarch butterfly

Yellow bee plant (Cleome lutea) visited by a monarch butterfly. (Credit: Shannon Lencioni, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center. Public domain.)

The western United States (US) encompasses dynamic landscapes that span tremendous climatological and ecological gradients. Especially across lower elevations, landscapes are hot, dry, and subject to unpredictable precipitation; such landscapes with dryland environments dominate the western US and are disproportionately managed by the Department of Interior and other federal agencies. Furthermore, the region’s complex topography has shaped species’ patterns of morphological and genetic variation due to their responses to historical events like glaciations that occurred more than 20,000 years ago. Such processes help explain the abundance of regionally unique species, some of which have extremely restricted distributions. Contemporary disturbances such as severe drought and high grazing pressures continue to cause changes in species’ distributions and population sizes. Couple these with increasing human pressures and negative impacts from exotic species, and it is evident that the western US has an increasing need for conservation measures supporting existing biological diversity and restoration for the species and ecosystem functions that have been degraded or lost.

Genetic and Genomic Approaches Facilitating Western Restoration

Graham’s beardtongue (Penstemon grahamii)

Graham’s beardtongue (Penstemon grahamii), a showy, narrowly endemic forb in the Uinta Basin (Credit: Shannon Lencioni, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center. Public domain.)

Dryland ecosystems cover more than one third of Earth’s land surface, are home to nearly 3 billion people, and are rapidly expanding in response to climate change and other human pressures. Moreover, larger and more frequent disturbances have increased the rate of degradation of dryland plant communities and, hence, the need for their restoration. Restoring drylands across the western United States is notoriously challenging due to highly variable and unpredictable precipitation. While there are many challenges to achieving successful restoration outcomes, a fundamental component is using genetically appropriate native plant restoration materials. ‘Native plant restoration material’ describes many types of products used in restoration treatments, but they are most commonly represented by native plant seeds produced in large quantities on farms. Genetically appropriate native plant seeds are adapted to survive and reproduce in the habitats where they are used and support other organisms in the local community. In addition, they represent natural patterns of genetic variation present in conspecifics at a restoration site. Genetic variation is an important component of biodiversity to conserve because it increases ecosystem resilience (the ability to bounce back after a disturbance), the healthy functioning of local communities, and provides a reservoir of unique solutions to help species and their populations adapt to future changes. The GWRC group conducts both field-based (i.e., phenotypic, or trait-based) experiments and landscape genomic analyses to support native plant materials development and the appropriate transfer of native plant materials across the western United States.

Click here to find out more about the application of genetics and genomics to restoration projects.

Genomic Research Supporting Western Conservation

Genomic variation (i.e., variation in DNA sequence or structure across the individuals of a species) is a crucial component of a species’ ability to thrive throughout its native habitat and adapt to future challenges (e.g., diseases, changing climates, and human disturbances). While common and widespread species often have high genetic diversity, rare species are vulnerable to inbreeding and chance events (for example, a natural disturbance that impacts a large part of a species’ distribution), which may lead to a disproportionate loss of genetic diversity. Loss of genetic diversity may compromise a species’ genetic ‘health’, leaving them vulnerable to local extirpation or complete extinction. The western United States hosts a wide diversity of rare and endemic species facing threats from ongoing drought and increasing extreme temperatures to habitat destruction and the spread of invasive species. The GWRC group studies genomic variation of rare and threatened species across this region in unprecedented detail. Research approaches capitalize on state-of-the-art genome sequencing technologies and advanced bioinformatic and analytical tools to 1) identify relevant biological units for management, 2) infer evolutionary and ecological processes shaping genomic variation across species’ distributions, and 3) develop informed strategies to preserve or increase the genomic health of plant and animal populations.

Click here to find out more about the application of genomics to conservation projects.



Restoration relevant science

Unexpected hybridization reveals the utility of genetics in native plant restoration: Winkler DE, Massatti R (2020) Restoration Ecology

The historical context of contemporary climatic adaptation: a case study in the climatically dynamic and environmentally complex southwestern United States: Massatti R, Knowles LL (2020) Ecography 43(5): 735-746

Assessment of population genetics and climatic variability can refine climateinformed seed transfer guidelines: Massatti R, Shriver RK, Winkler DE, Richardson BA, Bradford JB (2020) Restoration Ecology 28(3): 485-493

Multiple introductions and population structure during the rapid expansion of the invasive Sahara mustard (Brassica tournefortii)Winkler DE, Chapin KJ, François O, Garmon JD, Gaut BS, Huxman TE (2019) Ecology and Evolution 9(14): 7928-7941

Genetically-informed seed transfer zones for Pleuraphis jamesii, Sphaeralcea parvifolia, and Sporobolus cryptandrus across the Colorado Plateau and adjacent regionsMassatti R (2019) Bureau of Land Management:

Beyond traditional ecological restoration on the Colorado Plateau Winkler DE, Backer DM, Belnap J, Bradford JB, Butterfield BJ, Copeland SM, et al. (2018) Restoration Ecology 26(6):1055-1060

Resolving neutral and deterministic contributions to genomic structure in Syntrichia ruralis (Bryophyta, Pottiaceae) informs propagule sourcing for dryland restorationMassatti R, Doherty KD, Wood TE (2018) Conservation Genetics 19(1): 85-97

Population history provides foundational knowledge for utilizing and developing native plant restoration materialsMassatti R, Prendeville HR, Larson S, Richardson BA, Waldron B, Kilkenny FF (2018) Evolutionary Applications 11(10): 2025-2039

Rapid alignment of functional trait variation with locality across the invaded range of Sahara mustard (Brassica tournefortii)Winkler DE, Gremer JR, Chapin KJ, Kao M, Huxman TE (2018) American Journal of Botany 105(7): 1188-1197

Conservation relevant science

Convergent evolution of seasonal camouflage in response to reduced snow cover across the snowshoe hare rangeJones MR, Mills LS, Jensen JD, Good JM (In press) Evolution

Early life history responses and phenotypic shifts in a rare endemic plant responding to climate changeWinkler DE, Lin M, Delgadillo J, Chapin KJ, Huxman TE (2019) Conservation Physiology 7(1): coz076

Genetic analyses of Astragalus sect. Humillimi (Fabaceae) resolve taxonomy and enable effective conservationMassatti R, Belus MT, Dowlatshahi S, Allan GJ (2018) American Journal of Botany 105(10): 1703-1711

Adaptive introgression underlies polymorphic seasonal camouflage in snowshoe haresJones MR, Mills LS, Alves PC, Callahan CM, Alves JM, Lafferty DJR, Jiggins FM, Jensen JD, Ferreira JM, Good JM (2018) Science 360(6395): 1355-1358

Contrasting support for alternative models of genomic variation based on microhabitat preference: Speciesspecific effects of climate change in alpine sedges: Massatti R, Knowles LL (2016) Molecular Ecology 25(16): 3974-3986

Utilizing RADseq data for phylogenetic analysis of challenging taxonomic groups: A case study in Carex sect. RacemosaeMassatti R, Reznicek AA, Knowles LL (2016) American Journal of Botany 103(2): 337-347

Targeted capture in evolutionary and ecological genomicsJones MR, Good JM (2016) Molecular Ecology 25(1): 185-202

Spatial patterns of avian malaria prevalence in Zonotrichia capensis on the western slope of the Peruvian AndesJones MR, Cheviron ZA, Carling MD (2015) Journal of Parasitology 99(5): 903-905

Spatially variable coevolution between a haemosporidian parasite and the MHC of a widely distributed passerine: Jones MR, Cheviron ZA, Carling MD (2015) Ecology and Evolution 5(5): 1045-1060

Looking for small-leaf globemallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia)

On the hunt for small-leaf globemallow (Sphaeralcea parvifolia), a priority restoration species.

(Credit: Shannon Lencioni, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center. Public domain.)