Environmental DNA to test for the presence of endangered species
The detection of endangered species in proposed construction sites is mandated by UK and EU law and consequently supports a multi-million pound industry of ecological consultancies. These consultancies mostly rely on labour-intensive and time-limited techniques to conduct their surveys by direct observation, driving up costs for developers. Recently, novel DNA sequencing and bioinformatic technology has brought about a revolution in the study of species diversity and monitoring. DNA procedures are becoming increasingly powerful for the analysis of entire ecosystems. Moreover, and unlike classical approaches, DNA-based species identifications no longer require that specimens are observed directly, as their DNA can be retrieved from the environment. DNA-based methods promise to greatly reduce the costs of environmental monitoring while also increasing information content. This combination confers competitive and reputational advantages on businesses able to take advantage of this new set of technologies.
The NERC IAA was used in 2014 by Professor Alfried Vogler to develop use of ‘environmental DNA’ (eDNA) to monitor aquatic ecosystems, first focusing on a particularly important component of small ponds and lakes in Britain, the endangered Great Crested Newt (GCN, Triturus cristatus) whose presence confers protection to their habitats. This proof of concept study proved effective and, following Natural England’s announcement in 2014 that it would accept eDNA evidence, was applied through the 2015 GCN season via Imperial Consultants.
Professor Vogler successfully applied for a NERC Follow on Fund in partnership with the University of East Anglia in July 2015, receiving nearly £200K in funding from the Research Council plus other external investment to establish a spinout company – NatureMetrics Ltd. - offering a range of DNA-based environmental services for ecological monitoring. Starting with employing 3.5 full time positions, this has since increased to about 30 and expanded to a larger site.
NatureMetrics is now an award-winning technology start-up using cutting-edge genetic techniques to monitor biodiversity. It works with a wide variety of industries and organisations to build a detailed understanding of how to protect and grow biodiversity and natural capital through adaptive management techniques in forests, farms, fisheries and beyond. The company has set up regional coordinators in Western Africa, South Africa and South America to work with large corporations in the extractive industry and international NGOs looking to form partnerships and carry out monitoring in their project sites around the world. It has also developed easy-to-use kits for Citizen Science activities through the eDNA Discovery Lab and engages local communities and schools in outreach activities, as well as providing kits that can be ordered and used by the general public.