Genetic diversity

Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. With more variation, it is more likely that some individuals in a population will possess variations of alleles that are suited for the environment. Those individuals are more likely to survive to produce offspring bearing that allele. The population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals.

Variation in the populations gene pool allows natural selection to act upon traits that allow the population to adapt to changing environments. Selection for or against a trait can occur with changing environment - resulting in an increase in genetic diversity (if a new mutation is selected for and maintained) or a decrease in genetic diversity (if a disadvantageous allele is selected against). Hence, genetic diversity plays an important role in the survival and adaptability of a species. The capability of the population to adapt to the changing environment will depend on the presence of the necessary genetic diversity The more genetic diversity a population has, the more likelihood the population will be able to adapt and survive. Conversely, the vulnerability of a population to changes, such as climate change or novel diseases will increase with reduction in genetic diversity. For example, the inability of koalas to adapt to fight Chlamydia and the koala retrovirus (KoRV) has been linked to the koala's low genetic diversity. This low genetic diversity also has geneticists concerned for the koalas ability to adapt to climate change and human-induced environmental changes in the future.

A genetic bottleneck can occur when a population goes through a period of low number of individuals, resulting in a rapid decrease in genetic diversity. Even with an increase in population size, the genetic diversity often continues to be low if the entire species began with a small population, since beneficial mutations (see below) are rare, and the gene pool is limited by the small starting population. This is an important consideration in the area of conservation genetics, when working toward a rescued population or species that is genetically-healthy.

When humans initially started farming, they used selective breeding to pass on desirable traits of the crops while omitting the undesirable ones. Selective breeding leads to monocultures: entire farms of nearly genetically identical plants. Little to no genetic diversity makes crops extremely susceptible to widespread disease; bacteria morph and change constantly and when a disease-causing bacterium changes to attack a specific genetic variation, it can easily wipe out vast quantities of the species. If the genetic variation that the bacterium is best at attacking happens to be that which humans have selectively bred to use for harvest, the entire crop will be wiped out.

The natural world has several ways of preserving or increasing genetic diversity. Among oceanic plankton, viruses aid in the genetic shifting process. Ocean viruses, which infect the plankton, carry genes of other organisms in addition to their own. When a virus containing the genes of one cell infects another, the genetic makeup of the latter changes. This constant shift of genetic makeup helps to maintain a healthy population of plankton despite complex and unpredictable environmental changes.

Attempts to increase the viability of a species by increasing genetic diversity is called genetic rescue. For example, eight panthers from Texas were introduced to the Florida panther population, which was declining and suffering from inbreeding depression. Genetic variation was thus increased and resulted in a significant increase in population growth of the Florida Panther. Creating or maintaining high genetic diversity is an important consideration in species rescue efforts, in order to ensure the longevity of a population.