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Wildlife genetic diversity may be key to adapting to climate change

A small macro photo of white flowers with a blurred background.
Greg Peterson
Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flower species in the mustard family. This species is often used for plant genetics research.

This month’s USU Ecology Center speaker is exploring how genetic diversity shapes a species’ ability to adapt to climate change. His findings could help shape global policies that aim to preserve nature.

Moises Exposito-Alonso is an assistant professor at Stanford University and a principal investigator at the Carnegie Institute for Science. The greater the genetic diversity in a species, he says, the more likely they are to adapt.

“We could talk in economic terms, diversify your portfolio of the genotypes that you have, and each genotype is betting for different ecological strategies…chances are that at least some of them will survive…and will reproduce the next generation, maintaining some degree of genetic diversity upon which future environments will act and select the best ones,” Exposito-Alonso said.

Using a mustard plant species as their focus, Exposito-Alonso and his collaborators compared the plant’s genomes from 1,001 locations across its range. Then, they created a mathematical formula to describe how much genetic diversity the species could lose if the plant’s habitat shrank. This formula, he says, can be used to describe other species as well.

“No matter if it's a plant, or if it's an animal…it's the same logic and it will be trade-offs and balances between these different fundamental forces of migration, mutation, gene flow that determines how steep the changes in genetic diversity are over space,” Exposito-Alonso said.

While plant genetics may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about creating global policy, in a recent United Nations publication, they’re doing just that. Exposito-Alonso is hopeful this may help species adapt in the future.

“They now introduce a statement that we should at least preserve 90% of genetic diversity within all species. So, what they're recognizing is that genetic diversity will be key for maintaining evolutionary potential,” Exposito-Alonso said

For information on how to view Exposito-Alonso’s recorded seminars, visit

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.