Spotlight: Ecosystem restoration under the microscope

The Spotlight for Issue 54:1 is on the subject of genetics and restoration. The post about this Spotlight is written by Ryan Sadler from University of Toronto. All five Spotlight papers are currently free to read online.

When prompted to think of restoring an ecosystem, many people would surely conjure up memories of themselves standing over a freshly dug hole with a shovel and sapling in hand, ready to add yet another vital member to the larger community of species. However, as these undoubtedly aspiring scientists made their way through higher education, they would have learned that not only is it important to think about the diversity of species in an ecosystem, but also that of genes.

Two people planting trees as an example of an ecological restoration initiative (Photo credit).

Indeed, the current landscape of initiatives in ecological restoration appears to be overwhelmingly focused on achieving the re-establishment of favourable communities of species. Although this practice is beneficial in its own right for helping to reach the elusive concept of ecological integrity, it largely neglects an entire level of biodiversity – that being the genetic diversity within and among species.

With the release of five new studies detailing the role of genetics in successfully carrying out ecological restoration of grasslands, we could be seeing a shift from more theoretical to more practical considerations of genetics within this field. These studies collectively offered several key points: 1) Khalil, Gibson & Baer (2016) showed that using seeds of a given species from different sources can affect the phylogenetic diversity of the subsequent community; 2) Espeland et al. (2016) noted that evolution of founder populations during restoration activities can result in them being maladapted to their environment; 3) Selectively contributing individuals from genetically differentiated, regional populations of a species can allow for the assembly of founder populations that capture the genetic diversity of the species and promote local adaptation (Bucharova et al. 2016; Durka et al. 2016); 4) According to Barber et al. (2016), the evolutionary relatedness between species might not predict which species are likely to persist, potentially giving practitioners some leeway in the maintenance of phylogenetic diversity in their restored communities. In most cases, it seems prudent to develop a comprehensive understanding and management of the genetic diversity of communities at all stages of their restoration.

Las Tablas de Daimiel grassland (Photo credit).

Although these studies were looking at grassland restoration – supposedly because the quick community assembly of ruderal species makes it more timely – it would be interesting to see if their conclusions also apply to the restoration of other types of ecosystems such as wetlands and forests where enhancing restoration success is so badly needed. Regardless, the thought of being able to improve ecosystems by incorporating a whole other level of complexity into our restoration efforts is an exciting one.

While restoring ecosystems with genetic diversity in mind would certainly provide better results than a species-only approach, such an endeavour may not be feasible given the resources it would require in the context of real, large-scale restoration projects. On the other hand, advances in DNA sequencing technologies and bioinformatics, including those in computational power and methods of phylogenetic analysis, have likely aided in spurring this recent wave of interest in the integration of genetics into ecological restoration on a more practical level. Perhaps this relatively newfound efficiency and accessibility of phylogenetics will pave the way for conservation managers to fully utilize the valuable scientific insights of these studies and those that will follow.

An example of a multiple sequence alignment as a step in phylogenetic analysis (Photo credit).

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