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Capturing biodiversity data by analysing DNA in soil and water

We are currently in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event: identifying and measuring biodiversity is essential for prioritizing limited resources for conservation. Renewable energy companies are being asked to contribute to these efforts by measuring and reporting on their impact on nature. But biodiversity sampling can be overwhelming in scope and difficult to deliver for a business. This innovation by British start-up NatureMetrics offers energy company a way to measure biodiversity by analysing traces of DNA found in soil and water. Environmental DNA (e-DNA) sampling helps streamline environmental assessments and reduce risks for biologists and researchers.

An illustration of DNA sample collection using NatureMetrics' sampling kit. Credit: NatureMetrics

Sampling biodiversity is an uncertain and arduous business, and when power companies must get involved in it, getting started is often a daunting task. A conventional environmental impact assessment (EIA) for a hydropower project requires a team of trained engineers and scientists to study critical habitats over several field visits.

Several visits are required as biodiversity sampling can involve catching fish, bugs, or animals by using nets or traps. These visits need to be spread over two seasons at least, to ensure that the sample is representative, but this also has downsides: seasonal conditions can affect the quality of the data collected.

There is also a physical risk: researchers have identified no less than twenty-eight danger factors that posed a threat to researchers sampling biodiversity in water: from high physical effort to dangerous animals and insect vectors, contamination by water hazards (pesticides, nutrients etc.) and diving in inhospitable environments.  

“What if we could swap the traps and the microscope for DNA sequencing?” asked Dr Kat Bruce, Chief Technical Officer and Founder of NatureMetrics. The premise of the company is simple: with environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling, accurate biodiversity data can be collected by a smaller team at a faster pace, covering a greater number of taxonomic groups and over a larger area. The data collected helps build a comprehensive picture of species in an environment, while reducing time and cost of surveys.

Over the last 5 years, NatureMetrics has built up global expertise in the practical application of DNA metabarcoding, a method of species identification, to environmental monitoring challenges. e-DNA detects organisms present in the area without the need for their presence in the physical samples. This enables the discovery of a greater number of species including those that are rare and hard to detect, providing vital data for conserving endangered and protected species as well as finding invasive species before they become established.

After hundreds of sampling campaigns using e-DNA, NatureMetrics is enthusiastic about its results. For an environmental impact assessment project in the Amazon, the company found that two e-DNA samples collected from a medium sized river detected five times the number of fish species that netting did, in addition to providing data on mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds for no extra field effort. In another project in Sweden, e-DNA samples collected over two days detected the same number of species as 30 years of conventional surveys.

NatureMetrics delivers its sampling kits to clients globally and trains them to collect water samples. Water is pushed through a custom-designed filter using a syringe or a pump; the e-DNA traces are trapped on the filter membrane, which is fixed with a preservative solution and returned to the NatureMetrics labs in the UK for analysis. An advantage of this method of sample collection is that it can be carried out by non-specialists. The company has demonstrated that samples collected by non-expert localstakeholders yield comparable data to those collected by e-DNA experts.

Building on collaborations in Africa and Europe, NatureMetrics is showing that the deployment of DNA technologies at commercial stage can help energy businesses improve the sustainability of their operations.

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Innovation overview

  • Environmental DNA sampling using metabarcoding
  • Over 10,000 samples analysed for 300+ clients
  • Results covering hundreds of species received in weeks
  • Possibility of establishing local genetic reference librairies to improve eDNA monitoring and contribute to research in data-poor areas.
  • Opportunity to engage with local stakeholders and communities with the eDNA sampling and monitoring process
  • In-house logistics support for global operation/material transfers

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