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Whitham is studying the genetics not just of particular organisms, but of entire ecosystems, a “genes-to-ecosystem” strategy, he says. His work is motivated by the need to save species from climate change before they disappear. . . .
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This idea that communities evolve together—as opposed to evolving independently—has deep and unnerving consequences. It means that a change in genetic structure in one species can lead to a greater change in the ecosystem at large, and vice versa. The genetic diversity in certain keystone species, like cottonwoods, become the bedrock for hundreds of other organisms. . . . Any reduction in genetic diversity in keystone species also reduces the variety of communities that they can support, which can have a ripple effect through the ecosystem in a way that’s hard to predict.
Whitham’s ultimate goal is to sequence as many genomes as possible, to find what genes cause particular trees to interact with other organisms. “Breeding the right foundation species”—species that support large numbers of other ones—“may mitigate extinctions in these areas,” he says. He’s toyed with the idea of genetically modifying desirable traits, but he’s sensitive to GMO’s critics. Ultimately though, he thinks genetic modification will be hard to avoid.
“We can be purist, and not have the species,” he says, “or insert genes. But for now we’re only selecting for traits that naturally occur.”
Read full, original post: This Man Is Genetically Altering Ecosystems to Save Them from Climate Change