UBCO research advances wildlife conservation genetic studies

The research relied on DNA extracted from hair samples collected using rolled packing tape.

  • Aug. 8, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Thanks to UBC Okanagan researchers, “next-generation” DNA sequencing of non-invasively collected hair is expanding the field of conservation genetics.

New research shows that the entire genome—the complete set of DNA information—of hard-to-study species may now be available to scientists without the need to handle or even see the organism they are studying.

Published recently in the open access journal PeerJ by researchers at the UBCO and SNPsaurus LLC, the research opens up the field of conservation genomics to the use of non-invasive sampling techniques.

Information embedded within DNA has long contributed to biodiversity conservation, helping to reconstruct the past history of species, assess their current status, and guide strategies for their protection.

Endangered and elusive species 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.

“Until now, these approaches have been quite successful in obtaining genetic information from a handful of markers across the genome,” said Michael Russello, associate professor of biology at UBCO’s Kelowna campus and principal investigator of the study.

“However, so-called “next-generation” DNA sequencing’ (NGS) now allows researchers to collect massive volumes of genetic data on the scale of entire genomes, but harnessing such technology for endangered species can be quite challenging.”

For example, NGS typically requires high quality and large quantities of starting DNA 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, say, for the Amur leopard, which is 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.

The new study demonstrates that the non-invasive sampling, essential for many conservation-related studies, is now compatible with the minimum requirements for harnessing 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,” said Russello.

The research relied on DNA extracted from hair samples collected using rolled packing tape by Matthew Waterhouse, a PhD candidate at UBC and co-author of the study.

“The flexibility gained by using non-invasive approaches opens up sampling opportunities and increases sample sizes that are critical for our genetic studies, all while minimizing impact on the individual pika,” said Waterhouse.

The innovative data collection approach pioneered by Eric Johnson and Paul Etter of SNPsaurus LLC, both co-authors of the study, enabled the sampling of almost 10,000 variable sites in the American pika genome using, in some cases, as little as one nanogram (one billionth of a gram) of starting DNA extracted from hair.

“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,” said Russello.

The use of NGS on non-invasively collected samples is not without its challenges, but can be overcome with a host of careful considerations pointed out by the authors.

In an era in which global biodiversity continues to decline at rates consistent with a mass extinction, conservation scientists and managers can now add genomics to their toolkit for attempting to document and reverse this trend.

Just Posted

Okanagan Eats back for another year

Okanagan Eats features vendors, chef demos, and so much more. This isn’t your average food show.

Kelowna landfill flooding

The ground is soggy at the Kelowna landfill

Open letter to Premier John Horgan

LETTER: Group called First Things First Okanagan promotes action on climate change

Earth Day efforts undertaken in Coldstream

Society to Keep Kal Lake Blue cleans up Coldstream Creek, Girl Guides pick up trash on Silver Star Road

Lake Country to get a new winery

A development proposal was approved Tuesday by council

Lt.-Gov. Guichon believes she made the right decision

Outgoing Lt.-Gov Judith Guichon said her most memorable moments weren’t surrounding the election

Salmon Arm RCMP arrest one male on child pornography charges

Search of Canoe residence leads to seizure of computers

Highway 33 to re-open Friday

Traffic expected to resume at around 7 p.m.

VIDEO: Smokers talk pot rules at annual 4-20 event

Annual pot protest-meets-festival in Vancouver attracted hundreds to vendors, concert

New funds, recruits set to alleviate B.C. sheriff shortage

The Government of British Columbia announced new sheriff graduates, funding for more classes

Farnworth says five years too long for feds to deal with organized crime in medical pot

Needs to be dealt with much sooner than that, B.C. Public Safety Minister says

Unions set for national strike against CP Rail

Locomotive engineers, conductors and signals specialists seeking new collective agreements.

B.C. woman known to hitchhike around province missing

Aislynn Hanson, 18, last seen April 13; known to travel throughout B.C. by hitchhiking

B.C. court relies on Facebook to track down missing defendant

A court in Princeton, B.C. relied on Facebook to track down a B.C. missing his court date

Most Read