California Conservation Genomics Project Kicks Off with Planning Session at UCLA

September 5, 2019

With one million species at risk of extinction worldwide in the coming decades, researchers and conservation experts from across California met on September 5, 2019 at UCLA to plot a strategy for rapidly sampling and studying the genetics of 150 species to give them a fighting chance of surviving the impacts of climate change.  

The meeting was the first convening of advisors to the California Conservation Genomics Project, a three-year, state-funded $10 million project led by UCLA announced in July. Participants gave feedback on everything from how the initial 150 species should be selected, to sampling strategies and project administration. 

The California Conservation Genomics Project brings together researchers and experts from all 10 University of California campuses, the University of California Office of the President, officials from state and federal regulatory agencies, and nongovernmental organizations like The Nature Conservancy. All share the common goal of preserving as much of California’s rich biodiversity as possible under rapid environmental change.

“California is the most biodiverse state in the U.S., is a global hotspot for species, and faces some of the highest development pressures on earth,” said Cassie Rauser, director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which helped secure funding for the project. “What we do here has potentially national and global application.”

The California Conservation Genomics Project will create, for the first time, a centralized database of genetic information for key California species. Once created, the database will help researchers answer critical questions, such as which regions have the greatest levels of genetic variation and therefore most likely to be resilient against climate change impacts.

The data will also be helpful in making conservation decisions. For example, if two areas of high genetic diversity are not currently connected, new protected areas could act as corridors to help species move northward.

As California moves toward its goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2045, this new genetic data could also help determine where new renewable energy projects could be built while minimizing impacts on wildlife.

The ultimate goal of the project, said lead Bradley Shaffer (professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the UCLA La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science), is to create data that helps agencies and private landowners make better decisions now and into the future. 

“We expect this will be foundational for management and policy,” Shaffer said.