South Slough Reserve Manager Bree Yednock (left) and project lead Alison Watts (right) at the South Slough Reserve, where they are testing the use of eDNA as an affordable tool for many natural management issues.

Ever wondered what it would be like to use the tricorder from Star Trek? To scan an environment and learn what kinds of creatures live there? Reserve scientists are partnering with genetics researchers to refine a technology that feels like science fiction, but provides real world capacity to detect rare or invasive species more affordably, and with less impact, than with traditional methods.

Reserves in Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon are working with a research team at the University of New Hampshire to develop eDNA-based monitoring protocols that can be used for a range of natural resource management issues—from monitoring American eel migration in New England to invasive crab detection in the Pacific Northwest. 

Environmental DNA (or eDNA) comes from genetic material that animals shed through scales, shells, fur, feces, fragments of tissue, and more. To extract this DNA from the environment, scientists take a simple water or sediment sample and send it to the lab for a low-cost analysis. This approach could dramatically change the way we survey local streams, rivers, and estuaries for species that are invasive, rare, or difficult to track by traditional monitoring methods. 

UNH researcher and project lead Alison Watts takes water samples for eDNA analysis with Wells Reserve Researcher Coordinator Jason Goldstein. Environmental DNA comes from the residual genetic material animals naturally leave behind in their environment.

Through a process called “metabarcoding,” eDNA techniques can identify dozens of species to get a more comprehensive picture of the ecosystem. The wealth of information that eDNA provides can inform resource management decisions without the need to capture live animals or plants.

“Our Reserve is excited to explore the possibilities of this novel technology for early detection of invasive crabs and seaweeds, as well as to understand how climate change can affect our biological communities,” says Chris Peter, research coordinator at Great Bay Reserve in New Hampshire.

By testing this approach at Reserves with different research questions, management concerns, and biological communities, the research team has been able to assess the potential of this tool for widespread and diverse use.

“The NERRS provides a network of sites where scientists collect information on estuaries using standardized methods that have been developed by the system partners,” says UNH researcher and project lead Alison Watts. “By collaborating with multiple Reserves we are able to develop and test our methods at different types of sites, and gather input on how best to develop procedures that could be adopted at additional sites in the NERRS and beyond.”

eDNA was recently featured in National Geographic as one of the most exciting recent developments in marine science, and it soon be coming to an estuary near you!

This project was funded by the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative, which supports collaborative research that addresses coastal management problems important to reserves and their communities. For more information about this project >



Several extracted DNA samples in the lab ready for analysis. When analyzed, these samples can tell researchers what kinds of species are living in a system, without having to capture and count live animals. This project was funded by the NERRS Science Collaborative.

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