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Conservation is For Life, Not Just For Earth Day

Thursday, April 22, 2021

 

By Jonas Korlach, Chief Scientific Officer

 

Grapy dusks over tangerine fields. Potato-patch fog over beds of coral. Mountains, glaciers, forests, deserts, fertile farmland and seas with both Arctic and tropical biomes. 

One of the most geographically and biologically diverse states, California is home to both the highest (Mount Whitney) and lowest (Death Valley) points in the 48 contiguous states, as well as to some of the world’s most exceptional trees — the tallest (coast redwood), most massive (Giant Sequoia), and oldest (bristlecone pine).

At PacBio, we are extremely fortunate to have this biodiversity in our back yard — almost literally. We didn’t have to travel far to take samples of the giant California redwood as part of a personal project to sequence its gigantic genome and transcriptome

It’s one of the reasons we are excited to work with the California Conservation Genomics Project, a collaboration of scientists across the state that has selected more than 100 threatened, endangered or otherwise valuable species sampled from the full array of California ecosystems for HiFi sequencing and assembly.

A selection of the more than 100 species being sequenced by the California Conservation Genomics Project

The purpose of the $10 million state-funded project is to capture the genetic variation that exists across each species’ habitat, with the ultimate objective of informing smarter development and more effective conservation. 

How can genetics inform conservation? More biodiversity means more resilient ecosystems, and conservationists have long focused on preserving habitats and studying the roles of species within ecosystems. But they are now recognizing the importance genetic variation can play on long-term survival of a species. 

Populations with high genetic diversity are more likely to contain individuals with a genetic makeup that allows them to survive new environmental pressures. Populations with low genetic diversity might not even survive the next big threat, so it is crucial to identify individuals with genetic variation in order to conserve the species’ ability to survive and evolve. 

Threats to one population can threaten others, including ours. A collapsing ecosystem affects all those species who rely on it. So preserving biodiversity is also an exercise in self-preservation. 

California will not be the only ecosystem to benefit from the CCGP research. In many ways, the state is a microcosm of what’s happening to biodiversity around the world. It faces threats similar to those faced by habitats on other continents: climate change, wildfires, droughts, and an ever-expanding population that encroaches onto formerly wild lands.

Its efforts will be boosted by other international initiatives, such as the United Kingdom’s Darwin Tree of Life Project, Australia’s Oz Mammals Genomics Initiative, the Vertebrate Genomes Project and The Earth BioGenome Project, whose ambitious goal is to sequence the DNA of 1.5 million species by 2030. We’re proud that PacBio technology is being used in all of these projects. You can learn more about the biodiversity initiatives PacBio sequencing is supporting in my recent presentation at the Senckenberg Biodiversity Genomics Symposium.

While COVID-19 has focused the attention of the scientific community — including our own — on pathogen detection, surveillance and drug development, lockdown has also spurred a renewed appreciation of nature. How many of us have sought solace in a temple of trees — in some cases, amongst towering columns of sequoias older than the Parthenon? 

On this Earth Day, I urge all of you to do your part to “Restore our Earth,” whether that be committing to a home conservation project, or supporting an international one. At PacBio, we will be participating in public awareness campaigns and contributing our time and expertise in support of these important biodiversity initiatives. Let’s make every day Earth Day.  

 

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