New tools for conservation: dissecting the relative contribution of genetic and epigenetic changes to adaptive evolution
The current age has been named the “Earth’s sixth extinction”, as human-mediated extinction rates rival those of the five previous mass extinction events. Conservation has hence become a core field in Biology: however, most advances are from a genetic perspective.
To advance our understanding of the adaptive potential of vertebrate species and its role in conservation, I propose a ground-breaking approach to dissect the relative contribution of genetic and epigenetic changes to adaptive evolution. Although disputed, it has been suggested that adaptive potential may not solely rely on genetic variation, but also on phenotypic and epigenetic variation. Particularly, upon rapid environmental changes, phenotypes may change and play a role in rescuing endangered populations. Yet, whether such phenotypic changes reflect genetic shifts or individual plastic responses to environment change remains unknown.
To address this key question, we propose to use the three-spined stickleback as model organism. We will assemble populations with varying levels of genetic diversity and expose them to increased parasitism and temperature. Specifically, we will:
- Identify genomic regions underpinning parasite and temperature adaptation;
- Investigate the stability of epigenetic changes over generations as responses to selective pressures;
- Elucidate the link between genetic diversity - propensity to epigenetic changes, and the extent of phenotypic variation;
- Develop state-of-the-art tools for conservation programmes that incorporate a complete evolutionary response.
We will then verify and synthesize our results by screening these genes in a wide range of populations with varying levels of genetic diversity and demographic histories. The anticipated results of this proposal will significantly extend the current frontier of our knowledge regarding the adaptive potential of species and how to best protect vertebrates under conservation threat.
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