Rapid evolution in waterfleas yields new conservation insights – Science Daily

The extraordinary ability of animals to rapidly evolve in response to predators has been demonstrated via genetic sequencing of a waterflea population across nearly two decades.

In a new study, published in Nature Communications, scientists at the Universities of Birmingham in the UK, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, and the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Berlin, were able to identify more than 300 genes that vary in the genome of the waterflea.

These genes, which account for about about 3 per cent of all sequenced waterflea genes, underpin changes in behavioural and life history traits that improve survival when exposed to predators.

Strikingly, evolution in response to predation pressure occurs within just a few generations. It is mediated by so-called standing genetic variation — the amount of genetic diversity harboured by a given natural population. The research brings to the forefront of science the importance of standing genetic diversity to support rapid adaptation. It also highlights that reducing the genetic diversity of natural populations has important consequences for their ability to adapt to environmental change.

Lead researcher, Dr Anurag Chaturvedi, currently at the University of Birmingham’s School of Biosciences and former PhD student at KU Leuven, explained: “We were able to quantify the genetic diversity of one particular Daphnia population over nearly two decades and show clearly how rapid evolution took place in response to environmental pressures. This type of research will be invaluable for understanding the potential impacts of future environmental changes on
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