UW News

June 9, 2022

Scientists seek to grow the field of eDNA research ‘without squelching creativity’

UW News

two researchers sample water in a stream.

Postdoctoral researcher Erin D’Agnese, left, and chief scientist Eily Andruszkiewicz Allan sample water near a culvert in a western Washington stream. The team is using eDNA to monitor the presence of salmon in streams to gauge the effectiveness of culvert replacement projects in the state. Jenna McLaughlin

A new effort at the University of Washington aims to accelerate eDNA research by supporting existing projects and building a network of practitioners to advance the nascent field. Called the eDNA Collaborative, the team is based in the College of the Environment with leadership and program staff from the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

For about a decade, scientists have honed the craft of using genetic material in the environment — known as eDNA — to detect and monitor organisms for environmental science and conservation. In a marine environment, for example, scientists can collect water samples from a specific location, then extract DNA to discern which species were present recently in that area, having never seen the animals themselves.

This bit of molecular wizardry is now becoming routine for scientists — even prompting a commitment from the U.S. Navy to use eDNA to map the locations of marine mammals — and the eDNA Collaborative aims to help the technique make the leap into everyday use for people and governments everywhere.

water sampling in a creek

Researchers take water samples in a creek as part of an effort to monitor the presence of salmon in streams.Jenna McLaughlin

It can be hard to monitor and gather data across large areas using standard techniques of observing and counting various species, and eDNA techniques aim to supplement standard approaches to data collection and monitoring. This data can then inform state and federal decisions about wildlife conservation and management. For example, the team helped roll out a molecular method to help Washington find invasive European green crabs as they threaten to invade the waters of Puget Sound. Such practical applications are what turn a technology from being an interesting niche into a foundational tool on which agencies rely.

But adopting new technologies requires building familiarity and trust, and this is where the eDNA Collaborative comes in. The Collaborative’s director, Ryan Kelly, a UW professor of marine and environmental affairs, likened the young field of eDNA research to how various new technologies develop and take off.

“Experimentation is how technologies develop, and as with the early days of any new tech, it’s a soup of ideas with eDNA research,” Kelly said. “While people are still inventing, we don’t want to impose standards in a top-down way. We want to encourage best practices without squelching creativity. That’s what this Collaborative will help do: accelerate the field from the bottom up.”

The initiative will focus on three main areas: Supporting existing eDNA research projects at UW; granting seed money to new eDNA research ventures outside the UW and the United States; and supporting a visiting scholar program to connect eDNA practitioners and encourage networking and information-sharing. The goal is to move more of the techniques developed in the lab out into practice in the field, helping the best ideas rise to the surface faster.

“Environmental DNA is an entirely new way of seeing the living world, and we’re just learning how to take advantage of it for purposes of management and conservation. At the Collaborative, we wake up every day thinking about how to move this technology into routine practice for people and institutions around the world,” said Eily Andruszkiewicz Allan, chief scientist at the Collaborative.

portrait of three staff members

The eDNA Collaborative team. From left to right: Program manager Cara Sucher, director Ryan Kelly and chief scientist Eily Andruszkiewicz Allan.eDNA Collaborative

The Collaborative is funded initially with a $1 million grant from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. The team also recently secured a $7.5 million grant from the U.S. Navy — in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Scripps Institution of Oceanography — for a five-year project to use eDNA to map the locations of marine mammals in the ocean.

The goal is to help the U.S. Navy reduce harm to marine mammals by better understanding where those animals are in space and time. Most of the eDNA sampling activity will begin this fall and center around Seattle and San Diego. eDNA methods will fold into other existing work, including visual and acoustic surveys, to eventually produce a West Coast-wide estimate of where marine mammals are in the ocean.

Other ongoing projects include:

For more information, contact Kelly at rpkelly@uw.edu, Allan at eallan@uw.edu and program manager Cara Sucher at csucher@uw.edu or email the Collaborative at ednacollab@uw.edu. Contact U.S. Navy program officer Mike Weise for questions about the marine mammal monitoring grant: michael.j.weise@navy.mil.

Follow the eDNA Collaborative on Twitter at @eDNAcollab.