The loss of genetic diversity is a crisis linked to mass species extinction and climate change. it could be as serious for human society as it is for ecosystems; However, there are ways to combat this understaffed problem

Photo credit: M. Patrick Griffith / Montgomery Botanical Center

A hidden planetary crisis has long been neglected, as severe as the disappearance of species and habitat degradation. Genetic diversity, which reflects the variation in DNA within species and populations and is key to its adaptability in times of change, is being lost at an alarming rate. According to an article by 28 authors from 16 countries, the loss of genetic diversity can affect resilience to environmental change and lead to the loss of essential services to society. Once gone, it can take millennia for genetic diversity to return.

“We know that genetic diversity is decreasing, that it is rapidly disappearing, and that nature loses its resilience as a result when we need it most,” said lead author Sean Hoban of the Morton Arboretum in the USA. “The genetic diversity is invisible to the eye and in many cases it decreases before effects on the population of a species can be seen.”

As shown in the new article published in May 26th BioScience Now scientists can document changes in genetic diversity and develop measures to help. Using museum samples and genetic data sets collected over decades shows that genetic diversity is decreasing long before species disappear. The authors also use results from the Living Planet Index, which shows that species populations have declined by 68% to predict dramatic losses in genetic diversity (greater than 50% loss for many species) if protective measures are not taken. Ongoing losses already make natural and human systems, from coral reefs to farms to urban trees, very vulnerable to extreme events such as heat waves.

“Previous global targets that mentioned genetic diversity only focused on plants and other forms of agricultural diversity and ignored the importance of genetic diversity on a larger scale,” said Colin Khoury, study co-author and researcher at Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “But even with crop targets, the actual metrics used to measure our progress didn’t use genetics.”

Monitoring genetic diversity (through direct analysis of DNA within species over time) can help identify vulnerabilities. The authors point out that monitoring of genetic diversity is rapidly becoming more affordable because of the major technological developments in genome sequencing over the past 20 years. However, the article explains that technology must be made available worldwide, that experts must be advised on how to use it most efficiently, that data must be made open and accessible, and that knowledge must be synthesized for use by political leaders.

Other developments enable comprehensive monitoring of these hidden and neglected levels of biodiversity, including innovative policies and legislation, growing collaborations and capacity-building efforts, and databases that store exponentially increasing genetic data and make it publicly available. Scientists are also developing easy-to-measure proxies or substitutes for genetic data such as ecological diversity or population size that allow monitoring in countries with technological or financial barriers to genetic laboratories.

The Genetic Diversity Conservation Community supports the FAIR principles (data should be traceable, accessible, interoperable and reusable), which means that data collected for basic research can be reused for conservation and vice versa. Finally, collaborations and capacity expansions help improve knowledge in understaffed geographic regions, including the tropics.

“Commitments from countries and non-state actors such as cities and NGOs are required and can make a difference in protecting this biodiversity foundation,” said Cristiano Vernesi, chairman of the GBIKE COST action, which contributed to the study.

The results and instructions of the article are up to date. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is committed to the next 10 years and beyond. The CBD reflects the need to stop biodiversity loss and ensure its sustainable use, and envisions a world that “lives in harmony with nature”. Other global initiatives such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy are also aiming for strong progress over the next decade. These visions require urgent and courageous commitments. This article provides a roadmap for using genetic diversity information to help meet these commitments.

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