eDNA technology and new partnerships making a splash for ocean biodiversity

Marcelle Ayad and Dr Shannon Corrigan deploy a niskin bottle to sample water off the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Photo Credit: Colby James-Minderoo OceanOmics.

An exciting new partnership between the Federal Government and the Minderoo Foundation will transform how we monitor the health of Australian Marine Parks through eDNA technologies.

Scientists will use eDNA to track threatened species through small amounts of their genetic material released into the ocean.

The project leverages Minderoo’s OceanOmics program, which is developing and scaling the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) as a non-invasive, robust biomonitoring tool for management and conservation in our unique marine ecosystems.

The Albanese Labor Government’s investment of $3.4 million will be matched by an $8.4 million co-contribution by Minderoo, enabling a total project value of $11.8 million.

Environmental DNA, or eDNA, refers to genetic material that is shed by organisms into their surrounding environments – such as water, soil or air.

This DNA can be extracted from environmental samples and used to identify the presence of different species in that environment, without the need to directly observe or capture them.

As part of the two-year project, multiple oceanographic expeditions will be conducted along the Western Australia coastline and the Indian Ocean Territories, including Cocos Keeling Islands Marine Park, Christmas Island Marine Park, Perth Canyon Marine Park and Gascoyne Marine Park.

These voyages, several of which have already been made, will retrieve environmental DNA from water samples, identify the genetic signatures of key species, and use that data to develop new and efficient methods to monitor the status and trends of those species over time.

This information is important to identify places of high ecological value and to monitor the health of our precious species and vulnerable ecosystems across Australia’s 60 Marine Parks.

A key project output will be draft guidelines on the application of eDNA to monitor biodiversity in Australian Marine Parks, including work on how eDNA monitoring can be implemented into relevant policy and regulatory frameworks.

The Ocean Discovery and Restoration Program is a $15 million initiative to stimulate partnerships between Parks Australia and the private, philanthropic and science sectors to deliver ocean discovery and restoration initiatives across the Commonwealth Australian Marine Park estate. This is the first partnership agreement entered into under the program.

Minderoo Foundation Chairman, Dr Andrew Forrest AO, said that Minderoo Foundation’s OceanOmics program will revolutionise how we measure and monitor life in our ocean.

“Our oceans are globally threatened by multiple threats, including over-fishing, plastic pollution and climate change.

“Yet a major deterrent to arresting these planetary threats is our ability to accurately measure the scale of the problems,” he said.

“Minderoo Foundation’s OceanOmics program will provide Marine Park managers with new tools to detect and describe biodiversity changes in our environment.

“We have brought together the latest advances in DNA sequencing and computational analysis to massively increase the speed and scale at which we can measure and monitor life in the ocean.

“We do this by collecting and analysing marine environmental DNA – the floating fragments of genetic material found in seawater.”

The funding provided by the Australian Government will enable Minderoo Foundation to undertake surveys in remote Australian Marine Parks, technical analysis of genomic data and the preparation of related reports to be implemented directly in the management of the parks.

In addition to the immediate benefits of the information developed through the project, the partnership will improve our understanding of the regional and global connectivity of marine populations.

“This is a pivotal moment in response to a planetary emergency. OceanOmics is key to understanding the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, and informing our response to ensure the oceans are returned to a flourishing state.”

Minderoo has access to the research vessel Pangaea Ocean Explorer which has been adapted for this specialist work and will serve as the primary research platform for these expeditions.

Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek said this partnership will transform how we conserve our oceans for our kids and grandkids.

“Exciting environmental DNA work will help us monitor ocean life far quicker than traditional methods of data collection,”

“It means we could dip a bucket into the water and, by the power of science, detect if an endangered species has been in the area recently.

“It’s an incredibly exciting field of research, and I want to see more philanthropic groups and governments working together like this, to maximise both of our strengths.”

Additionally, the program will collaborate with the Minderoo-UWA Deep-Sea Research Centre to analyse eDNA samples collected from the deep sea.

The joint project will commence in March 2023.

The Advocate

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