Applications of Molecular Ecology

By this stage in the book it should be evident that the acquisition and analysis of molecular data over the past two or three decades has provided us with considerable insight into the ecology of wild populations in virtually every major taxonomic group. Although the greatest accomplishment of molecular ecology has been to broaden the scope of ecological research, it has also provided us with a number of applications that have important social and economic consequences, and in this short, final, chapter we will take a look at molecular ecology in a wider context.

The practical applications of molecular ecology are widespread and varied. We have discussed some of these in previous chapters, one important example being conservation genetics (Chapter 6). We also saw in Chapter 5 how phylogeography can help us to determine the source, and possibly the invasion route, of introduced species, and with this knowledge we may be able to limit the ecological havoc and financial ruin that are caused each year by bioinvasions. Phylogeography and population genetics have also been applied to matters of public health, for example researchers have used phylogeography to trace the source of outbreaks of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), dengue virus and rabies virus (Holmes, 2004), and molecular data have been used to infer patterns of dispersal and gene flow in mosquitos and other vectors of diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile disease (e.g. Tripet, Dolo and Lanzaro, 2005).

Most of this chapter will be concerned with the applications of molecular ecology to three areas that we have largely neglected so far: law enforcement, agriculture and fishing. A number of different methods that are used routinely by molecular ecologists will be the focus of these discussions, although note that

Molecular Ecology Joanna Freeland © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

molecular ecologists have not been solely responsible for the development of these methods. Microbiologists, for example, may routinely use species-specific genotypes for identification purposes, and there is considerable overlap between wildlife and human forensics. However, it is safe to say that without molecular ecology our ability to genetically characterize wild organisms and populations would be much poorer, and because this genetic characterization is fundamental to the applications that we will be discussing, few could question the relevance of molecular ecology.

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