On How Genomics will not solve Ecological Problems

I am responding to this statement in an article in the Conversation by Anne Murgai on April 19, 2022 (https://phys.org/news/2022-04-african-scientists-genes-species.html#google_vignette) : The opening sentence of her article on genomics encapsulates one of the problems of conservation biology today:

“DNA is the blueprint of life. All the information that an organism needs to survive, reproduce, adapt to environments or survive a disease is in its DNA. That is why genomics is so important.”

If this is literally correct, almost all of ecological science should disappear, and our efforts to analyse changes in geographic distributions, abundance, survival and reproductive rates, competition with other organisms, wildlife diseases, conservation of rare species and all things that we discuss in our ecology journals are epiphenomena, and thus our slow progress in sorting out these ecological issues is solely because we have not yet sequenced all our species to find the answers to everything in their DNA.

This is of course not correct, and the statement quoted above is a great exaggeration. But, if it is believed to be correct, it has some important consequences for scientific funding. I will confine my remarks to the fields of conservation and ecology. The first and most important is that belief in this view of genetic determinism is having large effects on where conservation funding is going. Genomics has been a rising star in biological science for the past 2 decades because of technological advances in sequencing DNA. As such, given a fixed budget, it is taking money away from the more traditional approaches to conservation such as setting up protected areas and understanding the demography of declining populations. Hausdorf (2021) explores these conflicting problems in an excellent review, and he concludes that often more cost-effective methods of conservation should be prioritized over genomic analyses. Examples abound of conservation problems that are immediate and typically underfunded (e.g., Turner et al. 2021, Silva et al, 2021).   

What is the resolution of these issues? I can recommend only that those in charge of dispensing funding for conservation science examine the hypotheses being tested and avoid endless funding for descriptive genomics that claim to have a potential and immediate outcome that will forward the main objectives of conservation. Certainly, some genomic projects will fit into this desirable science category, but many will not, and the money should be directed elsewhere.  

The Genomics Paradigm listed above is used in the literature on medicine and social science, and a good critique of this view from a human perspective is given in a review by Feldman and Riskin (2022). Scientists dealing with human breast cancer or schizophrenia show the partial but limited importance of DNA in determining the cause or onset of these complex conditions (e.g., Hilker et al 2018, Manobharathi et al. 2021). Conservation problems are equally complex, and in the climate emergency have a short time frame for action. I suspect that genomics for all its strengths will have only a minor part to play in the resolution of ecological problems and conservation crises in the coming years.

Feldman, Marcus W. and Riskin, Jessica (2022). Why Biology is not Destiny. The New York Review of Books 69 (April 21, 2022), 43-46.

Hausdorf, Bernhard (2021). A holistic perspective on species conservation. Biological Conservation 264, 109375. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109375.

Hilker, R., Helenius, D., Fagerlund, B., Skytthe, A., Christensen, K., Werge, T.M., Nordentoft, M., and Glenthøj, B. (2018). Heritability of Schizophrenia and Schizophrenia Spectrum based on the Nationwide Danish Twin Register. Biological Psychiatry 83, 492-498. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.017.

Manobharathi, V., Kalaiyarasi, D., and Mirunalini, S. (2021). A concise critique on breast cancer: A historical and scientific perspective. Research Journal of Biotechnology 16, 220-230.

Samuel, G. N. and Farsides, B. (2018). Public trust and ‘ethics review’ as a commodity: the case of Genomics England Limited and the UK’s 100,000 genomes project. Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy 21, 159-168. doi: 10.1007/s11019-017-9810-1.

Silva, F., Kalapothakis, E., Silva, L., and Pelicice, F. (2021). The sum of multiple human stressors and weak management as a threat for migratory fish. Biological Conservation 264, 109392. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109392.

Turner, A., Wassens, S., and Heard, G. (2021). Chytrid infection dynamics in frog populations from climatically disparate regions. Biological Conservation 264, 109391. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109391.

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