What Is Molecular Ecology?

Christian Petersen

Molecular ecology is a branch of biology that uses techniques and knowledge from several specialized fields, all relating to genetics, to study ecology and how genetics and species development are influenced by ecological factors. The focus for these studies is generally regarded as being on field studies rather than pure laboratory research. Molecular ecologists study the development of and genetic relationships between species and how environmental factors can influence them. They also use the data they acquire through the study of genetics to quantify the evolutionary history of species and species differentiation.

Researchers can study DNA sequences to explore the evolutionary past of organisms.
Researchers can study DNA sequences to explore the evolutionary past of organisms.

Field research is emphasized in molecular ecology for a number of reasons. Primary among these is that molecular ecology itself revolves around the way genetics and species development are affected by ecological and environmental factors. Another a major consideration is that many subjects, particularly microorganisms, are not readily available for laboratory culture and study. Of course, molecular ecology is not purely a field discipline, and much work is done in the laboratory as well, but like the science of archaeology, much important work is, and will continue to be, done in the field.

One of the main components of molecular ecology is population genetics. This branch of biology studies how genetic code is shared between organisms, how species are related to each other, and how environmental and ecological factors influence the distribution and frequency of bits of shared genetic code, called alleles, between individuals. By studying the genetics of a population of organisms, much can be learned about the development of a particular species, the way characteristics and traits are distributed through a population, and how the environment can influence mutation and adaptation.

The other main component of the field of molecular ecology is molecular phylogenetics, which is closely related to population genetics. Molecular phylogenetics studies the genetic code of organisms to determine how species are related, their evolutionary history, and how life has evolved. The principles of genetics allow scientists to learn much about where species come from, common ancestors, and evolutionary trees. Studying DNA sequences gives researchers a window into the evolutionary past of organisms in much the same way that a powerful telescope can give insight into the history of the universe.

Specialists in molecular ecology attempt to use the information from their research to study and answer traditional ecological problems and to find ways of improving conservation techniques and habitat preservation. Species identification and classification is often done on the basis of genetic studies by molecular ecologists, as distinct species may be so similar as to prevent positive identification by other means. Molecular ecologists can also contribute to biodiversity surveys by providing data on gene pools within populations and how closely or widely distributed genes may be between related species.

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