Towards genetic markers in animal populations as biomonitors for human-induced environmental change




Genetic markers provide potentially sensitive indicators of changes in environmental conditions because the genetic constitution of populations is normally altered well before populations become extinct. Genetic indicators in populations include overall genetic diversity, genetic changes in traits measured at the phenotypic level, and evolution at specific loci under selection. While overall genetic diversity has rarely been successfully related to environmental conditions, genetically based changes in traits have now been linked to the presence of toxins and both local and global temperature shifts. Candidate loci for monitoring stressors are emerging from information on how specific genes influence traits, and from screens of random loci across environmental gradients. Drosophila research suggests that chromosomal regions under recent intense selection can be identified from patterns of molecular variation and a high frequency of transposable element insertions. Allele frequency changes at candidate loci have been linked to pesticides, pollutants and climate change. Nevertheless, there are challenges in interpreting allele frequencies in populations, particularly when a large number of loci control a trait and when interactions between alleles influence trait expression. To meet these challenges, population samples should be collected for longitudinal studies, and experimental programmes should be undertaken to link variation at candidate genes to ecological processes.