eDNA brings new solutions for age-old conservation challenges

Published: 22nd April 2021

eDNA is an innovative tool that can help combat the lack of time, resources and data that conservationists are challenged with.

Over the last century, vertebrates have experienced extinction at rates 100 times higher than the expected background rate, and these mass extinctions are rapidly increasing. Conservationists have been working tirelessly for decades, implementing strategies aimed at protecting our natural world. Any proposed conservation strategy must be under-pinned by robust scientific understanding and requires a means of measuring and monitoring its effectiveness. We need to know what is being lost, and where, in order to inform and improve management plans and government policies. We need reliable, replicable data. And a lot of it.

Conservation teams must often work under significant financial and logistical constraints. Perhaps the most pressing of these is time – we must act quickly for biodiversity. Conservation efforts are frequently crisis-driven, which means that the problem’s severity has peaked before we take action. During crises, there is rarely enough time to thoroughly analyse a situation and gather all relevant information before acting. The issue is further aggravated by limited and often insufficient financial and human resources, particularly in developing tropical countries. New environmental DNA technologies are emerging as a real-world solution for conservationists to combat the lack of time, resources and data that are required to take action for nature. At NatureMetrics, biodiversity measurement lies at the heart of our business and we’ve used DNA to monitor biodiversity from tropical rivers to urban ecosystems.

Here’s three major benefits we have observed for how eDNA helps to combat the common conservation challenges:

Increased quality and quantity of data

Data that is easily accessible is becoming increasingly important in research and decision-making processes in conservation. Obtaining data from tropical forests often necessitates meticulous planning and resource-intensive fieldwork, such as terrestrial line transects. These methods have a limited capacity for detecting temporal patterns, are often limited to small spatial scales, and can result in substantial sampling error. As a result, conservation has been hindered by a scarcity of statistical results, especially in the tropics, which are vastly diverse. Whether we are collecting data for landscape scale habitat assessments or searching for a rare or cryptic endangered species, eDNA offers increased quality and quantity of data.

DNA metabarcoding generates robust, replicable biodiversity data at unprecedented scales, and across taxonomic groups. These environmental DNA technologies are changing how we monitor the natural world and generate large datasets that help us understand species distributions globally. The NatureMetrics scientists recover millions of DNA sequences every week and have worked with over ten thousand DNA samples.  This is particularly useful because identifying knowledge gaps and catalysing efforts to produce and use existing data have become top priorities for international organisations concerned with global biodiversity conservation.  With eDNA sampling kits the process of turning nature into data becomes almost effortless.

Empowering local conservation  

The simplicity at which anyone can collect data is one of the major advantages of DNA-based monitoring. This democratisation of biodiversity data would effectively bring data into the hands of those who need it. Because of its flexibility, large-scale data collection initiatives can be carried out with citizen scientists actively participating in major national and international conservation research programmes. Data is useless on its own; but, when it is placed in the hands of citizens, it empowers them to take action. With our easy field kits, we can place the power to track nature in the hands of everyone, from national park rangers to local community members.

We can empower people to take charge of their own conservation by allowing them to learn more about and understand their local environment. Furthermore, the more widespread and remote we can make the use of eDNA kits, the more we can expand our biodiversity knowledge. Every moment of data collection contributes to the global biodiversity database’s strength.

Our MozamSeq project is an example of this in action, with approximately fifty eDNA samples collected from a variety of habitats by project partners such as Ocean Revolution, WCS, IIP, and Erica Tovela at the Natural History Museum. The training was delivered via video conference and was successfully passed on to local communities in Inhambane.

Maximising resources through lower-cost, higher-quality monitoring

Conservation managers must balance available resources between monitoring operations, operational costs, analysis, and conservation action when implementing a monitoring programme. As a result, monitoring systems frequently lack adequate financial and logistical resources, limiting their efficacy and reach.  Since there is no need to send teams of experts to remote areas for prolonged periods of time, using eDNA decreases the costs and resources required for surveying by magnitudes. The protocol may be as easy as putting the kits in the hands of a local community member who can collect samples.

Conservation scientists have long recognised the urgent need for biodiversity data, and decades of research has revealed that we are losing biodiversity at unprecedented rates, akin to what many now refer to as the sixth mass extinction. It is imperative that we begin to respond to this crisis by supporting the new technologies to create data at large scales. With bigger and higher resolution data we can then start to make more informed decisions about nature. Beyond monitoring, the big data insights we can deliver will also have a disruptive impact on our understanding of how to work with nature to multiply the positive impact of nature-based solutions.

To see how NatureMetrics are already putting these DNA solutions into projects around the globe, check out our articles and updates in the NatureMetrics info hub.

Authors: Dr Natalie Swan, Ropafadzo Mugadza
By Published On: 22nd April 2021Categories: Articles

Share Now, Choose Your Platform!