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Saving species with genetic sleuthing.

Conservation biology conjures up the timeworn image of adventurers in pith helmets combing wilderness areas as they search for endangered species to capture and bring back to zoos. While conservation biologists still are out "beating the bush," the pith helmet set has changed drastically in the past decade, indicates Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology, Washington University. He points out that advances in genetic techniques have changed the working style of the Marlin Perkinses of the 1990s as they preserve and monitor species. "Ecology is the biological science most commonly linked in the public mind to conservation issues. But in an age of rapid species extinction, genetics is becoming the conservation biologist's indispensable tool, and it is also changing conservation management concepts."

Genetics is being used as a "fingerprinting" technique to track down poachers, a means of identifying species, a way to detect hybridization of species, and a tool to manage both captive and natural populations. It has become more integral to conservation biology, thanks to the development of methods such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which allows biologists in the field to collect minute samples of DNA in various conditions and examine them later without the worry of refrigerating the specimens while they travel.

"As recently as six years ago, collecting genetic samples was difficult at best and at times impossible because you needed to take large samples - either blood or fresh, intact tissue - then rush them off to a laboratory for analysis. Today, PCR lets you examine small pieces of sometimes very old, degraded DNA without the need of refigeration, and it also gives researchers more copies of DNA much more rapidly than previous techniques."

A prime example of genetic sleuthing in biological conservation is the work of Templeton's collaborators, John Panon, formerly a Washington University research associate, and Washington University biologist Nicholas Georgiadis. Beginning in 1989, they developed a genetic database of elephant DNA from 100 confiscated poached African elephant tusks. Their over-all goal was to halt the illegal ivory trade, a practice so severe that it is threatening the existence of African elephants. They believed they could track the tusks' point of origin by gaining genetic clues from the elephant DNA. The clues are genetic fingerprints that can tell the scientists if the elephant was a savanna or forest form, what line of female gave birth to it, and what part of the continent the elephant came from.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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