In October of 2021, Dr. Eske Willerslev sent shockwaves through the global scientific community by using next generation sequencing to glean exciting insights into the impact of client change on prehistoric plant and animal extinction. Dr. Willerslev and his international team of researchers published their study results in the Nature article “Late Quaternary Dynamics of Arctic Biota from Ancient Environmental Genomics.”
In the article, Dr. Eske Willerslev and his colleagues share some groundbreaking insights into the extinction of the woolly mammoth and the other large animals of the Holocene epoch. While scientists have long cited over-hunting by humans as one of the principal causes of the woolly mammoth’s demise, the article shifts the blame to climate change, showing that increasing temperatures over a period of millennia caused severe adulterations in the vegetation that woolly mammoths and many large animals rely upon for food.
To arrive at these findings, Dr. Willerslev and his colleagues employed next generation sequencing to analyze 535 ancient soil layer samples from 74 sites, generating 10.2 billion reads to look at the state of the biome in the Artic over a period of roughly 50,000 years. Unlike fossil records, which offer snapshots of only certain plants and animals, soil records allow scientists to examine all the lifeforms that occupied a specific area of land at a specific time in history.
Scientists such as Dr. Willerslev are increasingly turning to environmental genetic research driven by next generation sequencing both to study past ecological fluctuations and to optimize current conservation efforts. By better understanding the intricacies of climate change, they can better anticipate future environmental challenges and protect Earth’s diverse biosphere.
After reviewing the wealth of environmental genetic data generated by next generation sequencing, Dr. Jonathon H. Stillman and Dr. Eric Armstrong published the insightful article “Genomics Are Transforming Our Understanding of Responses to Climate Change” in the scholarly journal BioScience. As summarized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the findings of Drs. Stillman and Armstrong identified next generation sequencing as a tool capable of generating and analyzing immense amounts of information about biological populations and their various responses to climate change and other shifts in environmental conditions.
In short, next generation sequencing gives scientists the power to accurately study extremely large numbers of DNA strands with unprecedented speed. This tremendous speed, in turn, allows scientists to draw an incredibly detailed picture of plant, animal, and microbe groups over time, filling in the blanks of population characteristics and transformations that had previously eluded them.
Furthermore, the data analysis engendered by next generation sequencing allows researchers to more fully understand the ways in which biological populations adapt to a changing world. This not only allows them to more effectively chart the future of climate change, but helps them protect specific vulnerable biological species through targeted conservation efforts.
For example, next generation sequencing research on ocean coral determined that genes controlling cellular stress response became downregulated in coral populations that had adapted to cope with higher temperatures. This downregulation suggests a tremendous evolutionary cost for these heat-adapted creatures: one that might ultimately lead to mass extinction according to Drs. Stillman and Armstrong.
Identifying obstacles for next generation sequencing environmental genetic research moving forward, Drs. Stillman and Armstrong primarily bemoan its considerable cost. Fearing that a lack of funding will prevent the scientific breakthroughs that humanity needs to solve global warming issues worldwide, the researchers insist that scientists need the best tools available to tackle what they call one of the biggest but most poorly supported existential problems that we face as a planet today.