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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ecological genetics

Ecological genetics is the study of genetics in the context of the interactions among organisms and between the organisms and their environment. While molecular genetics studies the structure and function of genes at a molecular level, ecological genetics (and the related field of population genetics) studies phenotypic evolution in natural populations of organisms. Research in this field is of traits of ecological significance — that is, traits related to fitness, which affect an organism's survival and reproduction (e.g., flowering time, drought tolerance, sex ratio).

Studies are often done on insects and other organisms that have short generation times, and thus evolve at fast rates.


Although work on natural populations had been done previously, it is acknowledged that the field was founded by the English biologist E.B. Ford (1901-1988) in the early 20th century. Ford was taught genetics at Oxford University by Julian Huxley, and started research on the genetics of natural populations in 1924. Ecological Genetics is the title of his 1964 'magnum opus' on the subject (4th ed 1975). Other notable ecological geneticists would include Theodosius Dobzhansky who worked on chromosome polymorphism in fruit flies. As a young researcher in Russia, Dobzhansky had been influenced by Sergei Chetverikov, who also deserves to be remembered as a founder of genetics in the field, though his significance was not appreciated until much later.

Philip Sheppard, Cyril Clarke, Bernard Kettlewell and A.J. Cain were all strongly influenced by Ford; their careers date from the post WWII era. Collectively, their work on lepidoptera, and on human blood groups, established the field, and threw light on selection in natural populations where its role had been once doubted.

Work of this kind needs long-term funding, as well as grounding in both ecology and genetics. These are both difficult requirements. Research projects can last longer than a researcher's career; for instance, research into mimicry started 150 years ago, and is still going strongly. Funding of this type of research is still rather erratic, but at least the value of working with natural populations in the field cannot now be doubted.

More detail on Ecological genetics may be obtained in Polymorphism (biology).

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