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Outlook on a crisis discipline

Conservation Genetics

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As the editor of Conservation Genetics notes in the journal's first issue, conservation biology is a field that requires the integration of many disciplines — including social and economic matters — in order to address an issue that concerns us all. But is it then advisable to publish a conservation journal that focuses on only one of the many disciplines covered by the field? The editor, however, puts a strong case for the journal's publication, and stresses that its primary aim is to promote the application of molecular-genetics methodologies to answer pressing questions about the conservation of biodiversity.

The journal publishes research articles, review articles, commentary, short communications and technical notes. It thereby provides a wide range of options for promoting the dissemination of knowledge and for fostering discussion. And this is essential in a field where the results of scientific research can have a direct impact on the long-term survival of species.

As the founder of the field Michael Soulé rightly put it, conservation biology is a crisis discipline, where scientists have to work quickly to address urgent problems. Unfortunately, when operating in crisis mode, there may be a tendency to avoid thinking about new ways of solving the problem at hand and instead to use traditional approaches. Although this is sometimes necessary, it is not a good long-term strategy, and we need a forum for discussing and thoroughly testing new ideas and approaches.

Conservation Genetics could potentially fulfil this need, but only if it avoids becoming a repository of 'dull but worthy' papers. Purely descriptive papers providing useful information on the conservation of a species or population — for example, phylogeography, genetic structure and level of genetic variability — have been accepted by the journal but represent a small fraction of all the studies it has published so far.

Most of its papers go beyond a simple enumeration of genetic attributes and try to identify possible demographic, environmental and anthropogenic factors responsible for the observed patterns. Other studies have addressed more general and important questions, such as the validity of using neutral genetic markers — those not subject to selective forces — as a surrogate for the additive genetic variation underlying the traits that are the target of selection.

But one cannot help noticing that, despite the very long list of topics the editor suggests as appropriate material for his journal, close to 50% of the papers published deal with the genetic structure and/or phylogeography of populations. This criticism may seem unfair, as it is a trend that has been observed in the early days of other journals covering the broad field of molecular ecology. However, the field of conservation genetics must not be restricted to this narrow area, and the journal should endeavour to attract more papers dealing with other topics, such as inbreeding depression, hybridization and the impact of breeding programmes on genetic diversity.

Despite this caveat, it is clear that the journal has started well, and could eventually become the leading forum for the discussion of all aspects of population genetics in conservation science.

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Gaggiotti, O. Outlook on a crisis discipline. Nature 413, 678 (2001).

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