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Unveiling the Science of Environmental DNA (eDNA)



  Feb 07, 2024

Environmental DNA (eDNA)


 

What is environmental DNA (eDNA)?

Environmental DNA (eDNA) refers to genetic material that organisms leave behind in their environment, such as skin cells, scales, feathers, fur, feces, and saliva, in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This DNA can be collected from water, soil, air, or ice samples and analyzed to detect the presence of various species without needing to physically capture or observe them.

How is eDNA collected?

eDNA is collected by taking samples from the environment where organisms live. For aquatic environments, this involves filtering water to capture DNA fragments. In terrestrial ecosystems, soil samples or air filters can be used to collect DNA. These samples are then processed in a laboratory to extract DNA and amplify specific sequences that can help identify the species present.

Why is eDNA important?

eDNA is a powerful tool for biodiversity monitoring and conservation efforts because it allows for non-invasive sampling, which is less disruptive to organisms and their habitats. It’s particularly useful for detecting rare, elusive, or endangered species, monitoring biodiversity, and identifying invasive species early on. eDNA can provide a snapshot of the biological community in an area, offering insights into ecosystem health and species distribution.

Can eDNA detect both aquatic and terrestrial species?

Yes, eDNA can detect both aquatic and terrestrial species. While initially more commonly used in aquatic environments due to the ease of DNA dispersion and collection in water, advancements in sampling methods have made it increasingly possible to detect terrestrial species through soil, air, and even snow samples.

How sensitive and accurate is eDNA sampling?

eDNA sampling is highly sensitive and can detect low levels of DNA left in the environment. However, its accuracy can be influenced by several factors, including the amount of DNA shed by organisms, environmental conditions that affect DNA degradation, and the specificity of the molecular assays used for detection. Proper sampling techniques and experimental design are crucial to minimizing false positives or negatives.

What are the limitations of eDNA?

While eDNA is a powerful tool, it has limitations. DNA degradation over time means that it might not always be possible to determine whether the detected DNA comes from a living organism or one that has recently died. Environmental factors, such as temperature, water flow, and microbial activity, can affect DNA persistence and detectability. Additionally, distinguishing between closely related species can be challenging without highly specific molecular markers.

How is eDNA changing conservation and ecological studies?

eDNA is revolutionizing conservation and ecological studies by providing a less invasive, cost-effective, and efficient method for monitoring biodiversity and ecosystem health. It enables large-scale environmental assessments, aids in the enforcement of legal protections for endangered species, and enhances our ability to detect and respond to ecological changes, such as the spread of invasive species or the impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

Can eDNA be used to study extinct species?

eDNA primarily helps in studying current or very recent biodiversity. However, in specific contexts, such as permafrost or sediment cores, eDNA can provide insights into past ecosystems and the presence of now-extinct species. These studies, however, depend on the preservation of ancient DNA (aDNA) under conditions that prevent significant degradation over time.


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