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Genetic diversity is the total number of genetic characteristics in the genetic makeup of a species. It is distinguished from genetic variability, which describes the tendency of genetic characteristics to vary.
Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. With more variation, it is more likely that some individuals in a population will possess variations of alleles that are suited for the environment. Those individuals are more likely to survive to produce offspring bearing that allele. The population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals.
The academic field of population genetics includes several hypotheses and theories regarding genetic diversity. The neutral theory of evolution proposes that diversity is the result of the accumulation of neutral substitutions. Diversifying selection is the hypothesis that two subpopulations of a species live in different environments that select for different alleles at a particular locus. This may occur, for instance, if a species has a large range relative to the mobility of individuals within it. Frequency-dependent selection is the hypothesis that as alleles become more common, they become more vulnerable. This occurs in host–pathogen interactions, where a high frequency of a defensive allele among the host means that it is more likely that a pathogen will spread if it is able to overcome that allele.
Importance of genetic diversity
A 2007 study conducted by the National Science Foundation found that genetic diversity and biodiversity (in terms of species diversity) are dependent upon each other—that diversity within a species is necessary to maintain diversity among species, and vice versa. According to the lead researcher in the study, Dr. Richard Lankau, "If any one type is removed from the system, the cycle can break down, and the community becomes dominated by a single species." Genotypic and phenotypic diversity have been found in all species at the protein, DNA, and organismal levels; in nature, this diversity is nonrandom, heavily structured, and correlated with environmental variation and stress.
The interdependence between genetic and species diversity is delicate. Changes in species diversity lead to changes in the environment, leading to adaptation of the remaining species. Changes in genetic diversity, such as in loss of species, leads to a loss of biological diversity. Loss of genetic diversity in domestic animal populations has also been studied and attributed to the extension of markets and economic globalization.
Survival and adaptation
Genetic diversity plays an important role in the survival and adaptability of a species. When a population's habitat changes, the population may have to adapt to survive; the ability of the population to adapt to the changing environment will determine their ability to cope with an environmental challenge. Variation in the population's gene pool provides variable traits among the individuals of that population. These variable traits can be selected for, via natural selection, ultimately leading to an adaptive change in the population, allowing it to survive in the changed environment. If a population of a species has a very diverse gene pool then there will be more variety in the traits of individuals of that population and consequently more traits for natural selection to act upon to select the fittest individuals to survive.
Genetic diversity is essential for a species to evolve. With very little gene variation within the species, healthy reproduction becomes increasingly difficult, and offspring are more likely to have problems resulting from inbreeding. The vulnerability of a population to certain types of diseases can also increase with reduction in genetic diversity. Concerns about genetic diversity are especially important with large mammals due to their small population size and high levels of human-caused population effects.
When humans initially started farming, they used selective breeding to pass on desirable traits of the crops while omitting the undesirable ones. Selective breeding leads to monocultures: entire farms of nearly genetically identical plants. Little to no genetic diversity makes crops extremely susceptible to widespread disease. Bacteria morph and change constantly. When a disease-causing bacterium changes to attack a specific genetic variation, it can easily wipe out vast quantities of the species. If the genetic variation that the bacterium is best at attacking happens to be that which humans have selectively bred to use for harvest, the entire crop will be wiped out.
A very similar occurrence is the cause of the infamous Potato Famine in Ireland. Since new potato plants do not come as a result of reproduction, but rather from pieces of the parent plant, no genetic diversity is developed, and the entire crop is essentially a clone of one potato, it is especially susceptible to an epidemic. In the 1840s, much of Ireland's population depended on potatoes for food. They planted namely the "lumper" variety of potato, which was susceptible to a rot-causing oomycete called Phytophthora infestans. This oomycete destroyed the vast majority of the potato crop, and left one million people to starve to death.
Farm animal biodiversity
In the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have become extinct and 1,500 are considered at risk of becoming extinct, out of 7,600 breeds in the Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Over the last five years, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses, and poultry have been lost.
Coping with low genetic diversity
The natural world has several ways of preserving or increasing genetic diversity. Among oceanic plankton, viruses aid in the genetic shifting process. Ocean viruses, which infect the plankton, carry genes of other organisms in addition to their own. When a virus containing the genes of one cell infects another, the genetic makeup of the latter changes. This constant shift of genetic makeup helps to maintain a healthy population of plankton despite complex and unpredictable environmental changes.
Cheetahs are a threatened species. Low genetic diversity and resulting poor sperm quality has made breeding and survivorship difficult for cheetahs. Moreover, only about 5% of cheetahs survive to adulthood. However, it has been recently discovered that female cheetahs can mate with more than one male per litter of cubs. They undergo induced ovulation, which means that a new egg is produced every time a female mates. By mating with multiple males, the mother increases the genetic diversity within a single litter of cubs.
Measures of genetic diversity
Genetic Diversity of a population can be assessed by some simple measures.
- Gene Diversity is the proportion of polymorphic loci across the genome.
- Heterozygosity is the fraction of individuals in a population that are heterozygous for a particular locus.
- Alleles per locus is also used to demonstrate variability.
Other measures of diversity
Alternatively, other types of diversity may be assessed for organisms:
There are broad correlations between different types of diversity. For example, there is a close link between vertebrate taxonomic and ecological diversity.
- Center of diversity
- Genetic variability
- Genetic variation
- Human genetic variation
- Human Variome Project
- International HapMap Project
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