QLE.20.001 – Keeping small populations genetically healthy

Route: Quality of the living environment

Cluster question: 003 Why is biodiversity important and how do we protect it?

The decline of natural populations worldwide is risking the extinction of many species. The viability of small populations is further jeopardized by the negative consequences of loss of genetic diversity and expression of harmful mutations due to inbreeding. Similarly, captive populations with limited size, such as zoo populations, livestock breeds and companion animals, are also at risk, whereas small populations of invasive species seemingly escape these negative consequences. This emphasizes our limited understanding of these processes and the necessity for new insights that go beyond traditional methods for estimating and managing genetic variation. We need new genomic approaches that accurately quantify the number of harmful mutations, i.e. the genetic load in order to integrate conservation biology with genomics.
In this project we will develop and validate novel methods for the quantification of genetic load from genome sequence data and utilize this knowledge to generate management tools to mitigate the effect of genetic load in natural, captive and domestic populations. To achieve this goal we will i) characterize the genomic mechanisms underlying harmful mutations and predict their effect on the phenotype; ii) validate the newly developed genomic tools in experimental model species; iii) quantify existing levels of genetic load in small non-model populations from a wide array of species (insects, corals, fish, mammals) to understand how genetic load depends on changes in population size, reproductive mode and management practices; iv) use computer simulations to determine the effect of different management strategies and develop new software tools to help mitigate the effects of genetic load in small populations and in this way increase their viability. Finally v) the project will bring about a major societal breakthrough by providing tools for animal breeders, zoo’s and nature conservation organizations to assist them in keeping their populations genetically healthy.


conservation, extinction, genetic load, genomics, Inbreeding depression

Other organisations

Aeres University of Applied Sciences, Leiden University (LEI), Naturalis, NIOO-KNAW, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen (RUG), Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU)


Organisation Wageningen University & Research (WUR)
Name Prof.dr. A.M. (Martien) Groenen
E-mail martien.groenen@wur.nl
Website www.wur.nl/abg/