How biological response may help avert another mass extinction of species

A recently published study in journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science documents how sea stars resort to rapid genetic selection when subjected to shock of mortality due to a wasting disease. The ‘genetic selection’ in response to massive perturbation led to the rapid evolution of a resilient genetic variant that will survive for many generations.

Each species carries genes that may help it survive a perturbation like global warming and in some species those genes begin to appear more frequently in newborns in response to the perturbation. This is called genetic selection – an increased frequency of a particular gene in response to environmental change or increased predation due to natural predators or humans. Such biological response to ecological disturbance is a constant reminder that nature makes the rules, while biology finds the loopholes.

The previous five mass extinctions wiped out as many as 90 per cent or more of extant species at the time and were caused by natural drivers such as flood of basalts (magma flows that last for millions of years like the process that formed the Deccan Plateau in India) or meteorite strikes (like the one that likely wiped out the dinosaurs).

A number of species like the sea stars do respond within our lifetime and such responses provide excellent insights into evolutionary processes and their timescales, as well as potential pathways to apply the advances in genetic science to mitigate the ‘sixth extinction’

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