DNA For Conservation
Conservation is an unbelievably vast and a rather deep science. How deep? All the way to the molecular level! And to understand the implications of studying the fundamental molecular unit of all life – the DNA, on conservation of the dwindling wildlife, fourteen participants from all over India gathered for the Conservation Genetics workshop at the prestigious Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
Photo Courtesy: SACON.
Tucked away in the Eastern most corner of the beautiful Western Ghats, we found ourselves the perfect location in a sleepy village close to Anaikatty. We sat in a little forested bowl as lush green mountains towered on all sides, encapsulating us. Cocooned in nature, the location could not have been more ideal!
For those who don’t know what the science of Conservation Genetics entails and its significance, let me put it in fewer and simpler jargon. Conservation Genetics basically involves studying the genes within populations to gauge the future of these populations and then resorting to interventions (translocations or connecting populations through corridors) based on genetic analysis for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity to prevent extinction. As we all know, loss of habitat, climate change, hunting, poaching, illegal trade and human-animal conflict are among the major human-induced pressures on wildlife worldwide. This is, unbeknownst to us all, leading to loss of genetic diversity and risking extinction of species as their adaptive capacity to environmental change gets severely hampered. Genetics helps us to seek answers to the history of any given individual or population as well as provides a window into the possible future which field studies and observations can’t. This helps in creating appropriate, even customized, species-specific conservation measures. Hence the need for conservation genetics.Interesting and popular case-in-point being the timely genetic studies and analyses as part of the conservation efforts put in to save the African Cheetah population from risk of extinction. Closer home, genetic studies with a focus on tigers and leopards revealed the importance of natural forest corridors and the urgent need to protect them in India without which the risk of inbreeding and genetic bottleneck loom large.
The five-day workshop commenced on the morning of June 5, 2017. Renowned small cat biologist and Principal Scientist at SACON, Dr. Shomita Mukherjee (through and through a cat person! She even has her fridge covered in cat caricature magnets!)along with the young and brilliant population geneticist at Willdife Institute of India, Dr. Vishnupriya Kolipakam, accomplished Scientist at SACON Dr. R.P. Singh, and the ever enthusiastic Pankaj Koparde, PhD student at SACON (whose thesis involves a range of molecular analyses), in whose hands we were to submit ourselves to for the next five days.
And what a learning experience it has been for each one of us participants! We were taken on this incredible scientific journey from touching upon the fundamentals of genetics, evolution, ecology to deeper and deeper into the world of population genetics, DNA sequencing and analysis, and intricate laboratory techniques. SACON, under the sound and motivating leadership of Director K. Sankar recently launched a state-of-art genetics laboratory. This is where we were shown the rather mind-bending tricks of the trade by Dr. R.P. Singh as he expertly showed us the methods of DNA extraction, isolation, replication and sequencing and all the while explaining the nuances of physics and chemistry behind every method and chemical used for the experiments.
Photo Courtesy: SACON.
The beauty of this workshop lay in how our mentors stressed not just on the specific scientific jargon but also constantly inculcated the right approach toward embarking on scientific studies and research and often conveniently forgotten ethics! “Always start with right question. No research or study takes on a meaningful direction without it,” explained Dr. Mukherjee. This made a lot of sense as often research studies are embarked upon with little direction and no hope of finding important answers therefore,and in a greedy, mad quest to seek impressive results to publish as papers in scientific journals, ethics are left behind. “What we don’t realise is, even lack of a hoped for result is actually a result and evidence of something,” added Dr. Kolipakam wisely.
“And remember, conservation genetics cannot be studied as a mutually exclusive science, for firstly, it is an interdisciplinary field comprising population genetics inextricably linked to ecology, and without a sound knowledge of the species involved and its habitat, genetics will be far from understood,” Dr. Mukherjee told participants talking from her three decades of experience.
It was also an honour to have Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan, an award-winning population geneticist and an Associate Professor at National Centre of Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, give us a rather interesting and enlivening talk on her work and analysis of population genomics and evolutionary history of tigers.
Photo Courtesy: SACON.
It was incredible to think of how much genomic studies can reveal, especially now with better and better technology equipping us to unravel the so far eluding secrets of the natural world. Conservation has in the past few decades taken a turn for the better with improved genetic tools for support.
At the end of this fateful workshop, one of the participants, also a journalist, aptly called our mentors and principal scientists ‘rockstars’, as we came to realise just how much work, dedication and perseverance is required in this field that is the future of wildlife conservation.
Author: Purva Variyar