The rough edges of the conservation genetics paradigm for plants


N. J. Ouborg (tel. +31 24 3652470; e-mail


  • 1Small and isolated populations of species are susceptible to loss of genetic diversity, owing to random genetic drift and inbreeding. This loss of diversity may reduce the evolutionary potential to adapt to changing environments, and may cause immediate loss of fitness (cf. inbreeding depression). Together with other population size-dependent stochastic processes, this may lead to increased probabilities of population extinction.
  • 2This set of processes and theories forms the core of conservation genetics and has developed into the conservation genetics paradigm. Many empirical studies have concentrated on the relationship between population size and genetic diversity, and in many cases evidence was found that small populations of plants do indeed have lower levels of genetic diversity and increased homozygosity. Although less empirical attention has been given to the relationship between low genetic diversity, fitness and, in particular, evolutionary potential, the paradigm is now widely accepted.
  • 3Here we present five areas of the paradigm which could be refined, i.e. the ‘rough’ edges of the conservation genetics paradigm.
  • 4Treating population size and isolation not as interchangeable parameters but as separate parameters affecting population genetics in different ways could allow more accurate predictions of the effects of landscape fragmentation on the genetic diversity and viability of populations.
  • 5There is evidence that inbreeding depression may be a genotype-specific phenomenon, rather than a population parameter. This sheds new light on the link between population inbreeding depression and the expected increased probability of extinction.
  • 6Modern eco-genomics offers the opportunity to study the population genetics of functional genes, to the extent that the role of selection can be distinguished from the effects of drift, and allowing improved insights into the effects of loss of genetic diversity on evolutionary potential.
  • 7Incorporating multispecies considerations may result in the generally accepted notion that small populations are at peril being called into question. For instance, small populations may be less capable of sustaining parasites or herbivores.
  • 8Comparative studies of endangered, common and invasive species may be a valuable approach to developing conservation biology from a phenomenological case study discipline into one investigating the general principles of what sustains biodiversity.
  • 9The issues discussed set an agenda for further research within conservation genetics and may lead to a further refinement of our understanding and prediction of the genetic effects of habitat fragmentation. They also underline the need to integrate ecological and genetic approaches to the conservation of biodiversity, rather than regarding them as opposites.