4 Sept 2012

New DNA-method

Tracks fish and whales in seawater

Sept. 4, 2012 — Danish researchers at the University of Copenhagen are using a new method for monitoring marine biodiversity and resources by using DNA traces in seawater to keep track of fish and whales. A half liter of seawater can contain evidence of local fish and whale faunas and eliminate the need for marine conservationists to employ traditional fishing methods in their work. The results of the new study have been published in PLOS ONE.

"The new DNA-method means that we can keep better track of life beneath the surface of the oceans around the world, and better monitor and protect ocean biodiversity and resources," says Ph.D. student Philip Francis Thomsen from the Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen.

Marine ecosystems worldwide are under threat with fish suffering from human over-exploitation, which greatly impacts global biodiversity, economics and human health. Today, marine fish are largely surveyed using selective and invasive methods mostly limited to fish with commercial value, and restricted to areas with favourable conditions.

However, researchers at the Centre for GeoGenetics have now shown that fish and whales leave behind trace DNA that can reveal their presence with seawater samples of just half a liter.

The groundbreaking results are now published as two papers in the open access international scientific journal PLOS ONE. Read the papers http://adf.ly/CYXBM and http://adf.ly/CYXDm

From freshwater to seawater

The development of the novel DNA monitoring approach was accomplished by PhD student Philip Francis Thomsen and Master’s student Jos Kielgast from the Centre for GeoGenetics headed by Professor Eske Willerslev. In December last year, they showed that small freshwater samples contain DNA from several different threatened animals, and after having published these results they began to focus on seawater. Here it also proved possible to obtain, directly from the water, DNA that originating from marine animals living in the area.

"We analysed seawater samples specifically for fish DNA and we were very surprised when the results started to show up on the screen. We ended up with DNA from 15 different fish species in water samples of just a half liter. We found DNA from both small and large fish, as well as both common species and rare guests. Cod, herring, eel, plaice, pilchard and many more have all left a DNA trace in the seawater," says Philip Francis Thomsen.

In the other study the researchers showed that it is also possible to obtain DNA from harbor porpoise in small water samples taken in the sea, so the approach is not limited only to fish, but can also track large marine mammals.

A new and efficient method

The study also compares the new DNA method with existing methods traditionally used for monitoring fish such as trawl and pots. Here, the DNA method proved as good as or mostly better than existing methods. Moreover, the DNA method has a big advantage that it can be performed virtually anywhere without impacting the local habitat – it just requires a sample of water.

Associate Professor and fish expert Peter Rask Møller from the National History Museum of Denmark, who also participated in the study, is optimistic. "The new DNA method has very interesting perspectives for monitoring marine fish," he says. "We always keep our eyes open for new methods to describe marine fish biodiversity in an efficient and standardized way. Here, I look very much forward to follow the DNA method in the future, and I think it could be very useful to employ in oceans around the world."

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