By Fred W. Allendorf, Paul A. Hohenlohe & Gordon Luikart 04/30/12 12:21 PM

What is 'conservation genomics'?

  • Article: Genomics and the future of conservation genetics
  • Nature Reviews Genetics 11, 697-709 (October 2010)

Conservation genomics can be broadly defined as the use of new genomic techniques to solve problems in conservation biology. Frankham72 recently reviewed the current status of conservation genetics and proposed 13 priorities for development in the field. Many of these priorities have been intractable through traditional genetic techniques. Although genomic techniques are not appropriate or necessary in all cases, we believe that genomics will have an important role in addressing several research challenges over the next few years.

Genomic techniques will be more immediately applicable to some questions than to others. For example, in estimating neutral population parameters, such as effective population size, genomics simply provides a larger number of markers to an analytical and conceptual framework that is already widely used in conservation genetics. Genomic identification of functionally important genes is now common in other fields; conservation genomics can incorporate these approaches to study the genetic basis of local adaptation or inbreeding depression.

By contrast, predicting a population's viability or capacity to adapt to climate change based on genomic information will require not only the identification of relevant loci, but also a quantitative estimate of their connection to fitness and demographic vital rates. These challenges must be tackled by conservation genomics over the longer term.

Understanding genomic approaches is crucial to the success of applying genomics to conservation. A growing list of techniques is available for detecting DNA sequence differences across individuals in natural populations, and these vary widely in the density of markers across the genome, their ability to target candidate loci, the cost per sample, and so on.

Genomic techniques can be roughly grouped into three classes: marker-based genotyping, including a diversity of array-based SNP genotyping platforms; reduced-representation sequencing, which uses next-generation sequencing technology to target a subset of orthologous regions across the genome of many individuals; and whole-genome sequencing.

A crucial component of all genomic techniques is bioinformatics. The tools for handling genomic data are changing as fast as (and in response to) techniques for gathering the data, and we do not review the software and analytical issues here. Nonetheless, researchers using genomic techniques should plan on a substantial investment of time and resources devoted to data storage and analysis.

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