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Using eDNA Analysis to Learn More About Rare Marine Species

Edna pikitch
A pod of killer whales, an endangered species, swims near Seattle. By using eDNA from seawater samples, marine biologists can often detect rare species like the killer whale without seeing them. Credit: C. Emmons, NOAA Fisheries
A pod of killer whales, an endangered species, swims near Seattle. By using eDNA from seawater samples, marine biologists can often detect rare species like the killer whale without seeing them. Credit: C. Emmons, NOAA Fisheries

Internationally recognized ocean conservation expert Ellen Pikitch, from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, discusses eDNA analysis — a tool that may help scientists learn more about rare marine life than ever before — in a perspectives piece in the June 15 edition of Science. Pikitch is Endowed Professor of Ocean Conservation Science and Executive Director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

In the Science piece, she explains how eDNA — obtained from seawater that contains sloughed skin cells, scales, secretions and other matter from marine organisms — is being used to detect species presence and quantify the abundance of species. She compares the method head-on with other techniques that are being used to study rare marine species, many of which are less sensitive, more labor-intensive, involve capture of animals and destruction of their habitat. Furthermore, the eDNA method has been shown to reliably and non-invasively detect rare, elusive and difficult-to-study species such as threatened whales, sharks and dolphins.

“eDNA outperforms traditional research methods used to study marine species in many respects,” said Professor Pikitch. “Given its advantages, eDNA is likely to quickly become the method of choice for detecting rare and elusive marine species.”

Ellen Pikitch
Ellen Pikitch

In addition, eDNA methodology is improving rapidly and becoming more cost-effective.

“Both as a complement to prevailing methods and on its own merits, eDNA holds great promise for accelerating our understanding of ocean life,” she added.

For more information about Pikitch’s research please visit the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science website.

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