The individuals that make up a population are rarely identical. Such variation in the outward appearance of individuals (i.e., in their phenotype) results from the interaction of their individual inherited genetic makeup (genotype) with their surrounding environment. Most natural populations maintain a high level of such genetic diversity. This inherited genetic variation is the basis upon which evolution operates, and without it adaptation and speciation cannot occur. Genetic diversity fundamentally occurs in the form of nucleotide variation within the genome, which originates by mutation (changes in the nucleotide composition of genes, in the position of genes on chromosomes, and in the chromosome complement of individuals) and is maintained both by natural selection and by genetic drift. Other forms of genetic diversity include the amount of DNA per cell and chromosome structure and number. It is estimated that there are 109 genes in the world, although some of the genes for key processes vary little across organisms.
The long-term survival and success of a species depends to a large extent upon the genetic diversity within species, which makes possible both a degree of evolutionary flexibility in response to long-term climatic and other environmental change and a dynamic ecological community. The long-term aim of any conservation effort must be to maintain a self-sustaining dynamic ecological community, with the minimum of human intervention. This objective cannot be attained without recognition of the genetic diversity of the member species of the community.
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