Over the past decade biodiversity researchers have increasingly used DNA sequences extracted from environmental samples such as soil, marine and fresh water, and even air – termed environmental DNA (eDNA) – to identify the organisms present in a huge range of habitats.

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Sequencing these tiny traces of DNA has proved a powerful technique for detecting elusive species that may only rarely be observed directly, or in early life stage, when they may be difficult to identify, revolutionising biodiversity discovery and monitoring.

Researchers from the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy and the University of Leeds have developed an innovative new approach for collecting marine eDNA samples which promises to open up biodiversity monitoring of remote offshore ocean locations.

The team has developed a novel system for easy sampling that can be deployed from ocean-going ferries and other commercial vessels such as container ships, allowing the possibility of using the global commercial shipping fleet to help monitor marine biodiversity.

Collecting samples globally

Although DNA sequencing is becoming increasingly cost-effective, the biggest challenge is often collecting samples over the large geographic areas needed to scale up these new monitoring techniques to a global reach.

Sampling marine eDNA far from land usually depends on access to dedicated research vessels, which are complex and expensive to operate. These logistical constraints limit the geographic scope and frequency of surveys, impeding the expansion of large scale eDNA surveys.

The new system does not require complex equipment deployed from a ship; water is collected from the engine cooling system with simple apparatus and can be carried out by non-specialists. Since commercial vessels regularly cross remote corners of most of the world’s oceans, they could provide almost limitless opportunities for sample collection to contribute to biodiversity monitoring programmes.

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