The University of Maine and The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences will use a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to learn more about Maine's aquatic ecosystems.
The Maine eDNA project — where "e" stands for "environmental" — will analyze samples from around Maine's waterways. Lead researcher and UMaine professor, Michael Kinnison, says eDNA uses tools similar to those that crime scene investigators use, to find out which organisms are present. Kinnison spoke with Maine Public’s Nora Flaherty.
Nora Flaherty: In lay terms, what is the goal of this project?
Michael Kinnison: The goal of the Maine eDNA project is to really take advantage of rapid growth of new genetic technologies that we've seen in many areas over the last few decades, and apply those to environmental problems.
The particular environmental technologies we're building on here is called environmental DNA. And environmental DNA, uses almost forensic-like genetic tools to capture and understand the DNA that's in the world all around us.
It's in the water, it's in the air, it's in soil. And by capturing that DNA information that's available in those different sources, we can start to get a big picture of the types of organisms in those habitats, how they're interacting, and use that to hopefully improve our understanding and the sustainability of coastal systems, particularly here in Maine.
Environmental DNA allows us to capture a snapshot of a community, or to even detect rare species, maybe endangered species, or invasive species that would be otherwise very difficult for us to track down and monitor directly.
The ocean is a big place. We have many lakes and many rivers throughout Maine, and environmental DNA, because it requires essentially just a bottle of water as a sample, means that we can sample in many more places and detect organisms there, that would be maybe we couldn't handle directly.
They could be an endangered species which would be illegal to capture, or species that are just very cryptic or hard to identify, [but we could, using this technology], because DNA is a universal code for life. If we can pull that code out of water samples, we can really get a bigger snapshot of coastal communities.
So, just on the simplest level, is what you're doing here just taking a bottle of water, looking at it, and saying here are traces of DNA from all these creatures?
At the simplest level, environmental DNA is basically taking a sample of water, and from that sample of water, understanding the composition of this drifting DNA and using that to get a snapshot of a community.
And from there, because its genetic data, we can combine many, many different samples from many different people collecting it, and scale up in important ways that allow us to cover the whole coast of Maine, from lakes to the ocean, from microbes to whales.
That's a big change in how we conduct monitoring of our coastal systems, where usually, you have specialists focusing on single sites, single samples, very different data types. eDNA allows us to pull this genetic information out of water samples and turn it into something much bigger and comprehensive by combining those samples from many different users into a bigger picture.
NF: That seems very straightforward. Why hasn’t this already been happening – is there new technology?
What's really driving a lot of this technology and environmental DNA is new, [more efficient], genetic sequencing tools.
In the past, it would have been challenging to extract enough DNA out of environmental samples, to really get a good snapshot of what's there, with kind of advances in genetics that we're seeing with high throughput genetic sequencing technologies, we can now pull out enough DNA and identify that DNA at a relatively fine level to species that we can then use this in a more informative way.
Had you asked people say, 10 years ago, “could you take a water sample out of a lake or out of a river or estuary and tell me what fish are present in that system?” they would have said no. And it was only through some sort of interesting happenstance and people pushing this new technology forward that we realized there's a lot more information there than we ever thought.
And with that recognition, you're now seeing this explosion of environmental DNA technologies taking off here in Maine, all around America and the world, because of the power of this tool to really reveal these communities of organisms, that we really didn't think were going to be accessible that way, just 10 years ago.
Is this something that that you guys are thinking of in future for being something that's an opportunity for citizen science?
One of the most exciting things about environmental DNA is its accessibility. Right now, if you need to study a coastal system, you are probably a scientist with a lot of training expertise, maybe you have special permits and the like.
What environmental DNA does is, even though it's a high-tech solution, in a way it's very accessible to almost anyone, it involves collecting a water sample, in many cases, and almost anybody can collect a water sample.
So almost anybody can become engaged in environmental monitoring and build these new genetic data sets. Whether you're a citizen scientist, or you're involved in agriculture, or fisheries, or you’re monitoring for harmful blooms on a lake, almost any of those questions can be addressed by people of a wide range of skill levels and backgrounds.
Our hope really is that whether you're a school group going out to sample your local lake, or you're aquaculturists raising oysters, the data and samples that they collect can become ultimately combined. And by combining this resource from all these different groups, we can then really start engaging in big data analysis to ask questions about the stability and resilience across the whole coast of Maine.
Ed note: this interview was edited for length and clarity