Today was the first day of collecting samples in South Africa and the first sampling location was the Kariega estuary, near Kenton-On-Sea. We were joined by two researcher from SAIAB (South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity), who study a relative of the Knysna seahorse: the estuarine pipefish (Syngnathus watermeyeri). A species which is critically endangered, it is in fact so rare, that it was thought to be extinct in the early nineties until it was re-sighted in 1995. Since we are collecting environmental DNA (eDNA) samples in this area, we decided to temporarily team up with Paul and Nikki to see if this rare species can be detected with eDNA.
But what exactly is eDNA, or more precisely, how does it work?
The basis of this method is that all living beings contain DNA in their cells, and that all living beings “shed” this DNA in their environment. On land this can for example be through hair or feces, for fish this can happen through mucus, excrement, scales, etc. These tiny bits of DNA then float in the environment (the water in our case), which brings us to the actual sampling.
Collecting eDNA is pretty simple, we just scoop up water. That’s it. Really. But the actual work begins after the water is collected. The first step is to filter the water using a very fine filter which (hopefully) traps all the DNA in the water. At this point there is a LOT of DNA on the filter paper, most of which will be from bacteria, or larger species you may or may not be interested in.
The tricky next step (which will be done in the TrEnD laboratory at Curtin University), is to find the DNA you are looking for, which is very much like searching for a needle in a haystack. But both the hay and the needle are so small you can’t actually see it with a microscope. Scientists much smarter than me found a very clever solution to this: they invented a kind of magnet that basically pulls out the needle.
This magnet is called a “primer” and is based on how the DNA of different species (or families, or genera) is different from each other. These differences make it possible for geneticists to develop primers (=magnets) that can detect different things. Some primers are used to detect multiple species, for example: there are primers that will detect (almost) all bony fishes, others could be used to detect sharks. Other primers are more specific, like in our case, where we try to detect only 1 species. Alternatively, another project at Curtin University is currently working on a true “seahorse-magnet”: a primer that will detect all seahorse DNA in the water, regardless which species of seahorse.
As you can imagine, eDNA is a very exciting method with lots of potential uses. It is also a relatively new method, so lots of finer details still need to be studied to make the most of this technique.