It may already be too late to reach the UN genetic diversity goal, but new findings could guide conservation efforts

Newswise – Palo Alto, CA—Climate change and habitat destruction may have already caused the loss of more than a tenth of the world’s genetic diversity, according to new research led by Carnegie’s Moises Exposito-Alonso and published in science. This means that it may already be too late to reach the proposed UN goal, announced last year, of protecting 90 percent of genetic diversity for every species by 2030, and that we need to act quickly to prevent further losses.

Several hundred species of animals and plants went extinct in the industrialized era, and human activity has affected or reduced half of Earth’s ecosystems, affecting millions of species. Partial loss of geographic area decreases population size and can geographically prevent populations of the same species from interacting with each other. This has serious implications for the genetic richness of an animal or plant and their ability to cope with the impending challenges of climate change.

“When areas of a species’ habitat are removed or fundamentally altered, it limits the genetic wealth available to help those plants and animals adapt to changing conditions,” explained Exposito-Alonso, who holds one of the prestigious Staff Associate positions. of Carnegie, who recognizes excellence early in his career and is also an assistant professor, out of courtesy, at Stanford University.

Until recently, this important component has been overlooked when setting goals to preserve biodiversity, but without a diverse pool of natural gene mutations to draw upon, species will be limited in their ability to survive alterations in their geographic range.

In popular culture, mutations convey superpowers that defy the laws of physics. But in reality, mutations represent small, random natural variations in the genetic code that could positively or negatively affect an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce, passing on its positive traits to future generations.

“Consequently, the greater the pool of mutations a species is able to tap into, the greater the chances of stumbling upon that lucky blend that will help a species thrive despite the pressures created by habitat loss, as well as change in habitat. temperature and precipitation patterns, “added Exposito-Alonso.

He and his collaborators set out to develop a framework based on population genetics to assess the richness of mutations available for a species within a given area.

They analyzed genomic data for more than 10,000 individual organisms in 20 different species to show that Earth’s terrestrial plant and animal life may already be much more at risk of losing genetic diversity than previously thought. Because the rate at which genetic diversity is recovered is much slower than that at which it is lost, researchers consider it effectively irreversible.

“The mathematical tool we tested on 20 species could be expanded to make approximate conservation genetic projections for other species, even if we don’t know their genomes,” concluded Exposito-Alonso. “I think our results could be used to assess and track new global sustainability goals, but there is still a lot of uncertainty. We need to do a better job of monitoring species populations and developing more genetic tools. “

“Moi has taken a bold and creative approach to probing a scientific question that is critical for policymakers and environmentalists to understand if they want to implement strategies that meet the upcoming challenges facing our world,” said Margaret McFall-Ngai. Director of the newly launched Carnegie Division of Biosphere Science and Engineering. “This kind of intellectual courage is illustrative of the Carnegie model of doing science outside the box and the kind of work that is a hallmark of our prestigious Staff Associate program.”

The research team included members of the Exposito-Alonso lab — Lucas Czech, Lauren Gillespie, Shannon Hateley, Laura Leventhal, Megan Ruffley, Sebastian Toro Arana and Erin Zeiss — as well as collaborators Tom Booker of the University of British Columbia; Christopher Kyriazis of UCLA; Patricia Lang, Veronica Pagowski, Jeffrey Spence and Clemens Weiss of Stanford University; and David Nogues-Bravo of the University of Copenhagen.


This work was supported by a U.S. National Institutes of Health First Investigator Award, U.S. Department of Energy’s Bureau of Biological and Environmental Research, Carnegie Institution for Science, Center for Computational Evolutionary and Human Genomics from Stanford, from a long-term human frontier science program Fellowship and postdoctoral fellowship in biology from the US National Science Foundation.

The Carnegie Institution for Science ( is a private non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, with three research divisions on both coasts. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in life and environmental sciences, earth and planetary sciences, astronomy and astrophysics.


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