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Europe's Genetic Biodiversity Is Unmonitored, Say Researchers

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On our planet, each living being is distinguished from its peers by small differences in its hereditary material. Thus, when the environment changes and becomes unfavorable for populations of species (plant and animal), this genetic variability can allow them to adapt to new conditions, rather than becoming extinct or having to migrate to other habitats. In a simplified manner, we can therefore say that gene diversity represents one of the keys to the survival of species. In 2022, the International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has also maintained and increased the need to protect genetic diversity within wild species, a fundamental dimension of biodiversity that has been too neglected until now.

Global warming is already causing significant pressure on many species in Europe, particularly in populations that are at the climatic limits of their range. Their ability to resist greater heat or drought, but also in the face of new species colonizing their environment, therefore conditions their survival. It is in these limiting situations that it is most interesting to measure genetic diversity, to evaluate the ability of the species considered to persist.

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Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution , an international study co-directed by UNIL looked into the monitoring of genetic diversity in Europe. Olivier Broennimann and Antoine Guisan, attached to the Faculty of Biology and Medicine and the Faculty of Geosciences and the Environment, provided an essential contribution, by developing a unique tool to identify geographical areas where it should be monitored as a priority. Their results show that efforts to monitor genetic diversity in Europe are lacking and should be supplemented.

By analyzing all genetic monitoring programs in Europe, the study demonstrated that increased efforts should be deployed in areas located mainly in the South-East (Turkey and the Balkans). “Without better European monitoring of genetic diversity, we risk losing important genetic variants,” says Peter Pearman, lead author of the study and former UNIL collaborator. Improved monitoring would make it possible to detect areas favorable to these variants, and to protect them with the aim of maintaining the genetic diversity essential to the long-term survival of species. Some of the endangered species also provide invaluable services to humans, such as the functioning of ecosystems (including agricultural), the pollination of crops, the purification of water or the regulation of the climate.

The study included 52 scientists from 60 universities or research institutes in 31 countries. The results suggest that European genetic diversity monitoring programs should be adapted using this type of approach in a more systematic way and include all sensitive regions rich in genetic diversity. In view of recent international agreements to stop the decline of biodiversity, which Switzerland has signed, the study also notes that better monitoring of species in general and in particular of their genetic diversity is urgently necessary at the international level. This will enable better land use planning, and better support for conservation and ecosystem restoration actions, which will help ensure the persistence of species and the services they provide us.

Reference: Pearman PB, Broennimann O, Aavik T, et al. Monitoring of species’ genetic diversity in Europe varies greatly and overlooks potential climate change impacts. Nat Ecol Evol. 2024. doi: 10.1038/s41559-023-02260-0

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