NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Genetics' Role In Conservation

February 14, 2000

Science and technology have added a new tool to assist in environmental conservation -- information from studies of DNA and genetics in species.

As human populations increase globally, they break up and isolate animal populations. As small enclaves of animals replace free-roaming populations, the genetic makeup of the small groups becomes too homogeneous. Animals are left to mate with close relatives -- increasing the risk of potentially lethal genetic defects. Also, the loss of genetic diversity means that a single epidemic could wipe out the entire group.

But on the evidence of genetic studies, conservationists can introduce members of one similar genetic family into other isolated populations to breed -- rejuvenating both groups.

  • Scientists are Columbia University are studying the genes of Brazils only remaining 1,200 black lion tamarin monkeys, which are scattered among only nine isolated groups -- with the aim of strengthening the species through cross-breeding.
  • The same technique could be applied to the 55,000 Asian elephants, which are divided up into hundreds of different groups in dozens of countries -- severely limiting their genetic diversity.
  • By studying the genetic sequences of commercially-sold caviar, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History can determine if the roe come from endangered species of sturgeon -- thereby allowing authorities to patrol against illegal catches.
  • Researchers from Harvard make an annual trek to Tokyo to test whether sushi markets there are selling the meat of whales that are supposed to be protected by international whaling conventions.

Some scientists think the time will come when even extinct species can be revived by reconstructing their DNA samples.

Source: Alexander Stille, "New Mission for DNA: Preservation," New York Times, February 12, 2000.


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