To conserve anything, you first have to identify what it is that needs saving. Molecular biology (inside the cell) is a state-of-the-art tool for systematic studies, which identify plant and animal species and the relationships between species. Two examples of how molecular biology influences conservation are the dusky seaside sparrow in Florida and the hedgehog cactus in Texas.
When conservation efforts began in the mid-1970s to save the dusky seaside sparrow, a single population existed in Brevard County. Conservationists attempted to save the gene pool of the bird by breeding to the Gulf Coast seaside sparrow. These attempts failed, and the last surviving male died in 1987. Recent DNA testing has shown that a major evolutionary disjunction existed between Atlantic and Gulf coast populations. Thus dooming the conservation efforts directed at the dusky seaside sparrow.
In 1979, the Federal government placed Lloyd's hedgehog cactus on the endangered species list, because only 15 populations existed and all were on private lands. Recent evidence indicates that Lloyd's hedgehog cactus is not a distinct species but rather a hybrid, which is not evolving independently of its parental species. Chromosome studies show that the hedgehog cactus has four times the number of chromosomes as do other members of the genus. Additionally, cladistic analyses (the order of evolutionary descent) imply that this cactus arose through hybridization of Texas rainbow cactus and claret-cup cactus. Echinocereus Xlloydii, is not an independently evolving genome (species) and therefore, no longer qualifies for protection under the U. S. Endangered Species Act and it was removed from the endangered species list in 1999.
As these examples demonstrate, the role of molecular biology in conservation is an increasingly influential one. The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has established a new Systematics Division in the Research and Conservation Department to integrate molecular biology into ongoing plant conservation efforts. Dr. Wesley E. Higgins has joined the Selby Gardens team to chair this new division. He comes to Selby Gardens from the University of Florida where he specialized in the orchid genus Encyclia.