Habitat Disturbance leaves a genetic legacy

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Habitat disturbance, be that logging, agriculture, or roads and infrastructure, can be hugely damaging to biodiversity. But even after the visible wounds have healed, the genetic scars of past disturbance remain in the genome, according to results from a two-decade-long study of shrubs in Spain.

The effects of habitat disturbance on plants can be seen in the genomes of the next generation, a new study reports for the first time. The team compared the genetic and epigenetic profiles of shrubs (Lavandula latifolia) that had been experimentally disturbed 20 years previously, with those left undisturbed for more than 50 years.

Although after just 10 years the two plots appeared to have returned to a pristine state, the team found that disturbance was still evident in their genomes even 20 years after disturbance – roughly one shrub generation. Plants from the disturbed plot carried different epigenetic markers, and cluster analysis showed a clear genetic divide coinciding with the physical divide between habitats.

This study highlights the importance of genetic monitoring in conservation programs, which can reveal the ‘invisible scars’ of past disturbance, the authors say.

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