Case study

Using environmental DNA research to trace endangered - or invasive - species

Experts at the University of Derby are developing new DNA barcoding techniques to trace both rare or endangered species and those which are invading or colonizing various freshwater habitats around the world – providing a vital first step for successful conservation programmes and delivering real world solutions for the ecological industry.

Reliable surveying techniques are essential to aid the protection of endangered species and chart the spread of invasive species. Using environmental DNA (eDNA), researchers at the University of Derby are transforming the way different species can be detected, monitored and quantified, opening up avenues for the conservation of rare species and for the effective management of non-native species which are invading and colonising various freshwater habitats worldwide.

Environmental DNA assessment methods developed and validated by the University’s Aquatic Research Facility, within the Environmental Sustainability Research Centre (ESRC), have already been transferred to industry for commercial use and adopted by leading national and international organisations working in the field of wildlife and habitat conservation and management.

Capable of detecting very small numbers of individuals or populations, the eDNA approach is a more accurate, cost-effective, and time-efficient method of surveying that causes less damage to vulnerable habitats and does not require expert staff to collect samples.

The research team’s success lies in improving the way these methods can be used in freshwater environments, where eDNA is diluted and distributed by water movement and affected by environmental factors such as temperature and salinity. Their work has therefore involved rigorous validation for each new eDNA assay produced.

So far, they have devised specific eDNA assays for species like the white-clawed crayfish and the freshwater pearl mussel, both classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The same methods have also been used to chart the presence of highly invasive species such as the demon shrimp and marbled crayfish which threaten native populations.

In one of its most important advances, the team partnered with forensic analysis specialists SureScreen Scientifics who have adopted and released assays for the white-clawed and signal crayfish as a new commercial service. This has allowed the company to diversify into ecological surveying markets and create new revenue streams. The impact of the collaboration was highlighted by the National Centre for Universities and Business in its State of the Relationship annual report for 2019.

The novel eDNA techniques have also been adopted for species-distribution surveys by a range of governmental, charitable and scientific organisations. The researchers were commissioned by:

Similar surveys have taken place at international locations through the team’s collaborations with researchers at the Hellenic Centre for Marine and Inland Waters Research in Greece, the Research Institute for Nature and Forest in Belgium, and the German Cancer Research Institute.

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