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Environmental Conservation

Biology (Year 12) - Biotechnology: Applications

Ben Whitten

Conservation biology is the integrated study of ecology, physiology, evolution, molecular biology and genetics with a perspective on sustaining biological diversity at all levels. Conservation biology is considered to be abroad approach to preserving the genetic diversity which remains, and determining the care and attention requires for future protection. An important role of conservation is the protection of viable gene pools, being one that contains sufficient alleles and genes to give enough diversity for survival in a changing environment and which avoids loss of fitness as a result of interbreeding. There are three areas in which biotechnology can be used in environmental conservation for.

  1. Monitoring endangered species

  2. Assessing gene pools for breeding programs

  3. Quarantine

Monitoring endangered species

Monitoring endangered species is a crucial component of conservation, as it assists scientists in the identification of species who are threatened with extinction, and it provides evidence of the effectiveness of conservation strategies. Monitoring data can be used to diagnose the causes of a population's decline in numbers, and also to measure the effectiveness of management. Factors that are monitored closely include;

  • Behaviour

  • Geographical movement

  • Reproduction

  • Diversity

  • Population size (gene flow; birth, death, migration)

  • Population growth

DNA technologies can be used to help monitor endangered species. A key example is the Gouldian finch, or by its scientific name, Erythrura gouldiae. This bird species is being monitored with the use of a probe that identifies DNA in water bodies that are frequented by this critically endangered species.

Assessing gene pools for breeding programs

In small populations of animals and plants, there is a risk that closely related individuals will breed together, and the resulting offspring will have an increased risk of deleterious alleles becoming homozygous, making them vulnerable to genetic disease; called inbreeding depression. Biotechnologists have various techniques including DNA profiling to selectively breed individuals and stop inbreeding depression from occurring. This is a common practice in captive breeding programs of threatened species, a key example being the Tasmanian devil. Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is the name given to a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils which is characterised by the appearance of obvious facial tumours. Due to the condition, the tassie devil is now classified as a vulnerable species. Pedigrees, PCR techniques, sequencing and mapping of genomes have helped scientists determine the genetic variation remaining and the relatedness between individual devils. By doing this, the goal is to both maintain and/or increase genetic diversity in the population.

Quarantine to prevent the translocation of exotic species and spread of disease

Quarantine is another strategy for conservation that is employed across Australia and is defined as the isolation of organisms that have arrived from elsewhere/or has been exposed to an infectious disease. Quarantine is essential for exotic species entering a new area for conservation to ensure that they are kept from immigrating/emigrating into natural populations. Organisms in quarantine also must undergo close monitoring and supervision until scientists can confirm that any possibility of disease is no longer present to prevent possible spread of disease in ecosystems.

The Khapra beetle (Trogoderma granarium) is a quarantine-status pest in Australia; if the pest became established in Australia, international trade would be severely impacted and could have the ability to infest wheat products. DNA fingerprinting is used to enable biosecurity officers to efficiently and accurately identify the beetle.

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