|American Pika (Ochotona princeps)|
Conservation genomics has become an increasingly popular term, yet it remains unclear whether the non-invasive sampling that is essential for many conservation-related studies is compatible with the minimum requirements for harnessing next-generation sequencing technologies.
Endangered and elusive species by definition may be both rare and difficult to locate. As a result, conservation geneticists typically have to rely on sources of DNA collected non-invasively, such as from hair, feathers or feces. Up until now, these approaches have been quite successful in obtaining genetic information from a handful of markers across the genome including DNA Barcodes. Next-generation sequencing (NGS) allows researchers to collect massive volumes of genetic data on the scale of entire genomes but often it requires high quality and large quantities of DNA ideally extracted from fresh tissues or blood. Acquiring such materials is trivial for humans; a mere cheek swab will usually do. This is not the case for species that are both rare and elusive. In such cases, scientists and managers must rely on non-invasively collected sources of DNA that typically yield low quality and low quantity of starting material.
A new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and SNPsaurus LLC demonstrates that the non-invasive sampling that is essential for many conservation-related studies is now compatible with the minimum requirements for NGS technologies. As a result, it will now be possible to further expand the field of conservation genetics in the genomics era.
We were able to collect genome-wide data from natural populations of the elusive and climate-sensitive American pika on a scale unheard of just a few years ago. There are tremendous benefits for expanding our coverage of the genome when studying species of conservation concern, as it vastly improves our inferences of key genetic characteristics of populations and opens up new avenues for inquiry in the form of potentially identifying those parts of the genome that are involved in organisms' ability to adapt to changing environments.