eDNA transforms reporting on nature27 September 2022
Developments in environmental DNA technology are helping to transform complex natural systems into a new data layer for the hydro industry
The water sector is faced with a growing need to report on biodiversity, yet monitoring has traditionally been costly and difficult to perform at scale. We are all challenged by the need for better data on nature, whether it is for assessing the impacts of business operations or monitoring the success of restoration efforts on biodiversity. NatureMetrics makes biodiversity surveys possible at scale by providing the tools for simple DNA collection from project sites, which can then be sent back to the company for analysis, generating data on unprecedented scales.
As water sector companies balance increased demand with the move towards net zero 2030, it is essential to find innovative solutions that provide increased sampling resolution and reduced sampling effort and cost.
NatureMetrics is helping companies to achieve their corporate social responsibility goals, meet regulatory requirements and implement their net positive impact strategies. The company can detect invasive non-native species (INNS) and species of conservation concern, including terrestrial and semi-aquatic species, characterise fish and invertebrate communities and highlight sources of pollution.
The environmental DNA (eDNA) monitoring approach helps water managers make more informed decisions to effectively mitigate impacts, while reducing effort, costs and safety risks commonly associated with conventional biodiversity survey methods.
eDNA can be used to assist the development of sustainable hydropower. The information gathered from biodiversity data, especially when comparing baseline study data with post construction data, can assist with mitigating the impacts of these structures on the natural environment.
In Sweden, NatureMetrics has a commercial partnership with AquaBiota, delivering over 40 eDNA projects in Swedish Freshwater ecosystems, in the Baltic Sea and in the Arctic for clients in hydropower, offshore wind and local government. The company can generate bigger data sets with lower risks to field teams, particularly when investigating fish biodiversity, eDNA can be beneficial in terms of cost-effectiveness as well as in ethical and conservation matters.
A project in Finland has used eDNA to measure watershed biodiversity (specifically fish and invertebrates), motivated by the need to understand the impacts of dam construction on rivers when compared to natural areas where no infrastructure exists. Follow-up sampling is currently underway following the successful delivery of the baseline eDNA reports. Ongoing sampling will be conducted of natural and infrastructure sites, providing additional knowledge of the project sites and decision-ready data.
NatureMetrics’ eDNA kits have now been used in over 80 countries. The methods have been scientifically validated and anyone can collect a sample. The sampling kits have been designed to be quick and easy to use for existing staff or contractors on the ground, and minimal training is required. The kits are non-invasive, and sampling can be done in as little as 15 minutes.
The eDNA kits allow the data team to observe dynamics and community changes, meaning the team is able to measure impacts of human influences (both positive and negative) over time. In terms of nature restoration and conservation, when understanding which treatments work (and which don’t), this extra layer of biodiversity data is invaluable.
eDNA surveys can be performed in a range of habitats, offering highly standardised and comparable datasets with reduced taxonomic bias. A single methodology for eDNA projects is used across all regions. Surveys can be conducted throughout the year but spring to autumn is recommended as a time when most species will be active. Limitations include the difficulty with quantifying abundance of species, although some studies have shown that the relative amount of DNA between project sites can be used as a proxy for relative abundance.
The authors are Peter Kimberg, Head of Water at NatureMetrics, Karolina Peret, Business Development Manager for the Water Sector at NatureMetrics, and Dr Molly Clavey, Science Communications Manager at NatureMetrics.
What is eDNA?
When it comes to data on nature, there is currently a global knowledge gap; we are making decisions about the natural world based on incomplete, out-of-date and unreliable datasets. The advantages of eDNA are many, but a major highlight is the ability to fill previously unachievable knowledge gaps for species that are rare, cryptic or difficult to survey.
All living things leave traces of their DNA in the environment. Fish leave a trail of DNA in the water as they swim, and this DNA comes from their mucus, scales and even faeces. Mammals shed DNA into the environment too, from pieces of hair, cells, skin and faeces. Birds, humans, insects, amphibians, reptiles and all other living things do the same. The environment is one big soup of environmental DNA (eDNA) and it is easy to collect this eDNA from rivers, ponds, oceans, forests and more.
This unique signature of genetic information is like a fingerprint – every species has an individual DNA sequence. When this DNA information is collected and the sequence is detected, the genetic ‘code’ is then compared to a reference library of sequences.
Applications of eDNA for the water sector include:
- INNS/native species detection to allow earlier prevention of INNS from threatening native populations or affecting water quality.
- Freshwater biosecurity monitoring (at key entry points) and reinforcement.
- Monitoring to manage risk of spreading INNS from water supply infrastructure.
- Detecting the spread of species that have an impact on operational functionality and infrastructure needs.
- Monitoring for water quality by detecting harmful bacteria and algal blooms as well as diseases such as Chytrid fungus and Crayfish Plague.
- eDNA-based microbial source tracking allows source tracking of pollution using microbial community indicators, leading to better decision-ready data on nature.