Over a Tenth of World’s Terrestrial Genetic Diversity Probably Already Lost

The United Nations (UN) has plans for the protection of genetic diversity across the world. But a new study suggests that it may have already missed its target of preventing up to 10 percent loss from occurring a few years from now.



Hundreds of species (both plants and animals) have gone extinct in human history, especially since the start of the Industrial Age. According to researchers, habitat loss is a major cause of this. Human activity has encroached into and adversely impacted a large proportion of Earth’s ecosystems.

Read also: Sulfuric Acid Rain May Be the Cause of the Extinction of Land Species 252 Million Years Ago

Habitat loss affects millions of species and reduces local populations. It reduces species richness and harms the ability of species to adapt to climate change.

The UN revealed last year its target of preserving 90 percent of genetic diversity of all species by 2030. However, this new study led by Moises Exposito-Alonso of the Carnegie Institution for Science suggests that the world body’s target may already be off.

The research published in the journal Science showed that habitat loss and climate change may have already claimed more than one-tenth of earth’s terrestrial genetic diversity.

Role of mutations

Genetic mutations form the basis of diversity among species. They are small, random natural changes in the genetic sequence or code. These changes or variations have broadly differing effects, both positive and negative.

However, despite the role they play in genetic diversity, mutations did not get much attention when setting biodiversity preservation goals until of late. Species can find it difficult to adapt to and survive environmental changes if a varied pool of genetic mutations is lacking.

Read also: All the Ingredients for a Mass Extinction Event Are Now in Place Study Shows

“When you take away or fundamentally alter swaths of a species’ habitat, you restrict the genetic richness available to help those plants and animals adapt to shifting conditions,” said Exposito-Alonso, who holds a prestigious Staff Associate position at Carnegie.

The loss of naturally occurring genetic mutations reduces the ability of an organism to survive and to produce offspring that could inherit its positive traits.

As per Exposito-Alonso, “the greater the pool of mutations upon which a species is able to draw, the greater the chances of stumbling upon that lucky blend that will help a species thrive despite the pressures created by habitat loss, as well as shifting temperature and precipitation patterns.”

Lost diversity

In this research, Exposito-Alonso and his colleagues created a framework that is based on population genetics. Their aim was for this to be used in predicting reductions in natural mutations and in evaluating species richness in a certain area.

The team studied the genomic data of over 10,000 organisms that fall into 20 distinct species groups to prove that terrestrial plants and animals on earth were probably already at a considerable genetic diversity loss risk. It observed that the diversity loss may have by now exceeded what was predicted in the past.

Read also: Environmental Crisis: 30% Of the World’s Tree Species Are at Risk of Extinction

Sadly, the researchers observed that lost genetic diversity is all but irreversible. This is because the rate of diversity loss is usually faster than the rate at which it can be recovered.

“The mathematical tool that we tested in 20 species could be expanded to make approximate conservation genetics projections for additional species, even if we don’t know their genomes,” said Exposito-Alonso.

The study’s lead researcher added that their results may be used to assess and track new targets for global sustainability.

Exposito-Alonso noted that there was yet much uncertainty. There is a need to do more in tracking species populations and creating more, better genetic tools, he said.


Genetic diversity loss in the Anthropocene



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