Genomics and emerging biotechnologies are reshaping the field of genetic rescue. Historically, genetic rescue relied on introducing new individuals from distant ranges to save an isolated population suffering from inbreeding depression, a consequence of low genetic diversity resulting from a population bottleneck. A famous example is the case of the Florida Panther. By 1995 there were fewer than thirty panthers, resulting from a severe bottleneck of only six founding individuals. Odd physical traits began to appear and fertility and reproduction declined. To save the population, eight female Texas Cougars were introduced to Florida to hybridize, creating new genetic diversity. The population immediately grew, and today numbers more than 100 panthers, the carrying capacity for their habitat range. Increasing genetic diversity saved the Florida Panther’s resilience and adaptability. Resilience through genetics is the core theme at the heart of the modern reformation of genetic rescue approaches.
Today’s genomic technologies offer a broader suite of methods to increase genetic diversity rather than relying solely on physically translocating animals. In fact, the most advanced technologies will help to address very significant but specific concerns.
How Genetic Rescue Works
Rapid advances in genomics are expanding how genetic insight can inform the conservation of isolated populations to entire ecosystems. These new technologies are providing powerful new tools to advance conservation — from new genomic-based insights to more advanced interventions that address vexing conservation problems.
For instance, advanced reproductive technologies and genome editing are now making it possible to use genetic insight to address threats and save species in ways never before possible. Longer term, there is even an opportunity to restore the ecological function of extinct species with living adapted proxies, a process known as de-extinction. While biotechnology are enables new tools for genetic rescue, the practices and strategies are rooted in proven innovative conservation efforts: translocation, captive breeding, assisted reproduction (such as artificial insemination), adaptive conditioning, reintroduction, and ecological replacement.
The diagram above displays a range of threatened and endangered wildlife facing different challenges on the continuum towards extinction (red arrows) and the genetic rescue techniques that can aid recovery (green arrows). The wildlife depicted all present specific examples that either outline the genetic rescue tools that can be applied to save threatened wildlife and/or innovations already yielding recovery. The goal of all genetic rescue projects is to move species from the right of the continuum to the far left. Genetic rescue should complement traditional and important forms of conservation like the protection of habitat and the control of invasive species.