Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments, whereas ecological genetics focuses more specifically on the genetics of ecologically important traits, i.e., traits that influence ecological relationships. At its inception, ecological genetics focused particularly on traits that influence fitness, such as those that affect survival and reproduction. This focus is maintained in its current form, although ecological genetics now also investigates the ecological and evolutionary processes that influence patterns of genetic variation in natural populations. Therefore, it can also be considered a study of genetic processes associated with microevolutionary change. Although both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace brought together ecological and genetic concepts in the 19th century, the term “ecological genetics” was first used by E. B. Ford in his groundbreaking book Ecological Genetics (Ford 1964, cited under General Overviews: Textbooks). The field has evolved considerably since that time and now overlaps substantially with molecular ecology, a closely related field that uses molecular genetic tools to study questions in ecology. The only real difference between molecular ecology and ecological genetics is that the latter is not limited to studies based on molecular genetics. Instead, the term “ecological genetics” can refer to any study of the genetics of natural populations, whether they are based on molecular genetics, population genetics, or quantitative genetics. However, molecular genetic techniques are increasingly accessible and increasingly informative, and they often provide a relatively fast and cost-effective way to get data. As a result, the majority of ecological genetic studies now incorporate a combination of field and molecular genetic data, and the functional line between ecological genetics and molecular ecology is increasingly blurred.
General Overviews: Textbooks
The field of ecological genetics was formally developed by E. B. Ford, whose book Ecological Genetics was first published in 1964 (Ford 1964). In a review of this book, the eminent evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky identified it as a very important contribution to the biological theory of evolution (also known as the synthetic theory of evolution, or the evolutionary synthesis), based largely on the work of a group of researchers at Oxford sometimes referred to as the “Oxford School” (Dobzhansky 1964). Ford describes the fruits of “a method which has in fact proved effective: one which combines field-work and laboratory genetics” (Ford 1964, p. 1). This was an extremely important book at the time, with Ford’s novel identification of ecological genetics as the field of study that “deals with the adjustments and adaptations of wild populations to their environments” (Ford 1964, p. 3). Ford further claimed “it supplies the means, and the only direct means, of investigating the actual process of evolution taking place at the present time” (Ford 1964, p. 3). In 1994, several renowned biologists contributed to Ecological Genetics (Real 1994), although records of this book are now relatively scarce. Ecological Genetics: Design, Analysis, and Application (Lowe, et al. 2004) provided what was at the time an extensive and extremely useful overview of ecological genetics with particular emphasis on analytical methods. In the same year, A Primer of Ecological Genetics (Conner and Hartl 2004) described basic concepts in population and quantitative genetics, including mathematics and statistics at a less advanced level with the aim of making subjects more accessible. Several additional books on related topics originally published by Beebee and Rowe in 2004 and Freeland, et al. in 2005, later updated in 2008 and 2011, respectively (see Rowe, et al. 2017; Freeland, et al. 2011). Since that time, there have been numerous methodological developments in the field, many of which are reflected in Rowe, et al. 2017.
Allendorf, F. W., G. H. Luikart, and S. N. Aitken. 2013. Conservation and the genetics of populations. 2d ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
An in-depth overview of the concepts and tools that allow researchers to apply genetic information to biological conservation.
Avise, J. C. 2004. Molecular markers, natural history, and evolution. 2d ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
The first edition of this book in 1994 introduced the idea that protein and DNA data could inform all sorts of ecological questions. This edition was similarly informative, although it includes topics unlikely to be included in the early 21st century, e.g., protein markers and random amplified polymorphic DNA markers (RAPDs, now rarely used in ecology), and DNA–DNA hybridization (a fairly short-lived approach). Treatments of phylogeography, speciation, and mating systems remain relevant, but are somewhat dated.
Charmantier, A., D. Garant, and L. E. B. Kruuk. 2014. Quantitative genetics in the wild. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Explains ways in which the study of the genetic basis of quantitative variation in recent years has provided insight into questions of evolutionary ecology in natural populations. Topics include life history theory, behavior ecology, sexual selection, responses to climate change, and senescence in natural environments. Includes studies based on molecular genetics, laboratory studies, and long-term data sets collected in the wild.
Conner, J. K., and D. L. Hartl. 2004. A primer of ecological genetics. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.
Provides an excellent introduction to the theory and applications of ecological genetics by explaining the way in which basic population and quantitative genetic principles can be applied to the study of population evolutionary dynamics. Discussions of concepts are accompanied by real data sets that have been taken from the primary literature. This was a very useful overview, but it is now somewhat dated with respect to molecular markers and genetic data.
Dobzhansky, T. 1964. Review of Ecological Genetics. E. B. Ford. Methuen, London; Wiley, New York, 1964. xv + 335 pp. Science 145.3629: 258–259.
Review of Ford’s seminal book Ecological Genetics.
Ford, E. B. 1964. Ecological genetics. London: Methuen.
Includes chapter 11on chromosome polymorphism in Drosophila (“Drosophilosophy”; p. 105), chapter 14 on industrial melanism in moths, chapter 13 on mimicry in butterflies, chapter 9 on polymorphisms in snails, chapter 10 on mating systems in primroses, and topics that include genetic drift (chapter 3), sympatric evolution (chapter 4), and isolation and adaptation (chapter 15). Ford described research by many of his Oxford colleagues who are still well respected in ecology, evolution, and genetics, including Charles S. Elton, Ronald A. Fisher, and Julian Huxley. The importance of Ford’s book is reflected in four editions that were published from 1964 to 1975.
Freeland, J., H. Kirk, and S. Petersen. 2011. Molecular ecology. 2d ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Originally published in 2005. Provides a thorough overview of how molecular genetic information can provide insights into genetic diversity, gene flow, behavioral ecology, phylogeography, and conservation genetics. Includes a chapter on ecogenomics and quantitative trait loci (chapter 5) and is among recent books on ecological genetics. Although a useful resource, it is no longer up to date on the most recent genetic methods and techniques that are being applied to ecological questions.
Lowe, A., S. Harris, and P. Ashton. 2004. Ecological genetics: Design, analysis, and application. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Publication of this book followed the annual meeting of the Ecological Genetics Group in the United Kingdom (April 2000). It provides an excellent overview of molecular markers, analytical methods, applications, and interpretations of ecological genetics. Chapters cover sampling and genotyping methods (chapter 2), genetic diversity and differentiation (chapter 3), mating systems (chapter 4), phylogeography (chapter 5), and speciation and hybridization (chapter 6). The clear explanations of ecological genetics remain relevant, and the book’s main shortcoming is that it is dated because of the many developments in recent years that allow researchers to obtain vastly greater genetic data sets than in the past.
Real, L. A., ed. 1994. Ecological genetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Five leading experts of the time (Janis Antonovics, Michael Lynch, Montgomery Slatkin, Joseph Travis, and Sara Via) contributed overviews of topics that included gene flow, genetic differentiation, quantitative genetics, and plasticity. Many theoretical underpinnings remain valid, although the paucity of genetic data available in the late 1990s meant that the book did not receive as much attention as might be expected today.
Rowe, G., M. Sweet, and T. Beebee. 2017. An introduction to molecular ecology. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
The first two editions of this book were co-authored by Beebee and Rowe in 2004 and 2008. This edition provides a very useful overview of methods that are used to characterize natural populations genetically and gain insight into processes as diverse as behavioral genetics, phylogeography, microbial ecology, and conservation.
van Straalen, N. M., and D. Roelofs. 2011. Introduction to ecological genomics. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Genomics is a branch of genetics that incorporates information from the entire genome. The authors discuss the applications of genomics to ecological questions in the areas of stress response, population structure, genetic variation, adaptation, life histories, community structure, and nutrient cycling. Although genomics is still a stretch for many research labs, it is becoming increasingly accessible, and this book provides a useful overview of applications that will undoubtedly continue to grow.
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