$20M grant awarded for DNA-based ocean monitoring



ELLSWORTH — A $20-million grant announced by the National Science Foundation earlier this month will fund a five-year initiative by Maine science institutes to revolutionize the understanding and management of coastal ocean ecosystems, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences reported recently.

The grant will fund the first large-scale effort to develop a cutting-edge, DNA-based toolset for states to monitor aquatic life in their coastal waters.

The Bigelow Laboratory and the University of Maine will lead the project in conjunction with collaborators in education, government agencies, citizens’ groups and local industry.

“These advanced methods are already revolutionizing environmental science, and this project aims to do the same for Maine’s efforts to support sustainable fisheries, protect vulnerable species, monitor the impacts of climate change and manage harmful algal blooms,” David Emerson, senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory and co-principal investigator on the project, said in a published statement.

The project leverages developments in the understanding of environmental DNA (eDNA) — genetic traces left behind by all plants, animals, and microbes. Even a small water sample contains a massive amount of this information, which provides the potential to construct a snapshot of the local ecosystem at any given time.

“The beauty of eDNA is that it is a forensic tool whereby the DNA extracted from as little as a liter of seawater can tell us about all the living organisms in the ecosystem, from the smallest bacteria to largest marine mammals,” Emerson said.

Monitoring any marine species, let alone an entire ecosystem, is traditionally a difficult and expensive undertaking. Developing eDNA techniques aims to address those challenges. The methods start with inexpensive and easy-to-acquire water samples, and the analysis can yield a much more comprehensive view of marine life than could be previously obtained.

The work will use eDNA to test a number of ecological ideas about the relationships between species, how those patterns vary over space and time, and how they may respond to environmental change. In turn, using eDNA to answer fundamental science questions will validate the approach as an important tool for fishermen, aquaculturists, resource managers, conservation groups, and others to gauge the health and sustainability of coastal ecosystems.

The project was funded by an Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant. Those grants are designed to strengthen research capacity through projects that engage a broad community to address a compelling opportunity. Maine’s new multi-institution project will address the technical and scientific challenges required to unlock the full potential of eDNA and position Maine as a leader in the application of this new approach.

“The Maine-eDNA project is bringing together the best scientists from across the state to provide powerful new insights into our coastal ecosystem and the amazing diversity of life it supports,” Deborah Bronk, president and CEO of the Bigelow Laboratory, said in a statement. “We’re excited to work with the University of Maine and our other project collaborators to develop this powerful new tool for Maine’s aquaculture, fishing and biotechnology industries.”

Researchers from Bigelow are playing key roles in the major scientific themes of the project. Emerson, who originally developed and launched the statewide effort, will lead a team examining the use of eDNA to understand distribution patterns of marine microbes and their responses to environmental change. Other teams will focus on using eDNA to monitor harmful algal blooms and the impacts of changes in species diversity driven by factors like climate change and using eDNA to understand the movement and dispersal of larval stages of shellfish, crustaceans and seaweeds that are key indicators of the health of commercial fisheries.

“These new techniques can provide a vast amount of data about the health of our ecosystems and how they are changing,” said Nick Record, a senior research scientist at Bigelow who will work to build new computational models powered by eDNA information. “Similarly revolutionary advances in artificial intelligence now enable us to process this massive trove of information for new insights into the environment and even forecast the movement of species — from toxic algae to whales.”

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