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A mission for marine conservation

Genetics PhD student Gert-Jan Jeunen has gone from rearing alpacas in the Flemish corner of Belgium, to developing a science-fiction-like way to help conserve New Zealand’s oceans.

It is perhaps not surprising that a boy raised among alpacas, rabbits, cats and dogs would develop a concern for animal welfare. But the journey from a landlocked Belgian village to undertaking cutting edge marine conservation research at the University of Otago has been an intriguing one.

In fact, it was a field trip to the beach that set Gert-Jan Jeunen on a mission to protect our threatened oceans.

A journey to the sea

Gert-Jan grew up in the town of Maaseik, a small town on the Dutch border, on land that was once his grandparents’ farm. With his love of animals, it seemed inevitable that he would focus on zoology when he enrolled for a bachelor of science degree at the nearby Hasselt University. But when he selected his major in his third year, he paired his first love with what he saw as a more exciting option.

“I sensed that the future was genetics, so I focused on that.”

A masters in marine biodiversity and conservation under the Erasmus Mundus masters programme followed, and saw him studying at various universities across Europe. During this programme, on a field course to the seaside of North Brittany, his interest in genetics became anchored in marine conservation.

“On the French coast I realized that the ocean is a crucial, but threatened part of the global ecosystem and is in need of our protection” recounts Gert-Jan, whose research on Otago’s coast has only reinforced this view.

“Conserving the marine environment is so important when you have such beautiful beaches and diverse marine life like New Zealand’s. Coming from a place where the coast has been highly modified to accommodate tourism and the wildlife has almost disappeared, I really appreciate this.”

It was this sense of mission and a desire to travel beyond Europe that led Gert-Jan, in 2014, to contact University of Otago Professors Hamish Spencer and Neil Gemmell, both internationally renowned in the field of genetics.

A novel idea

By January 2015 he was flying over New Zealand’s South Island towards Dunedin, overlooking the dry late summer landscape he saw stretching down from the mountains to the sea.

But once again it was the ocean that waited for him rather than farmland, and within a week of landing his research had begun.

“I knew what I wanted to do. It was great that I could create my own research project with the help of my supervisors and not just follow in somebody else’s foot steps, which is what I would have had to do in Europe.”

Gert-Jan aimed to examine how invasive foreign species affect marine biodiversity. His supervisors told him to look for a novel and innovative angle rather than a well-trodden, conventional path. Together they arrived at the idea of assessing marine biodiversity by extracting and analysing environmental DNA (eDNA) extracted from the bits and pieces of life to be found in the sea: hair, skin, faeces, and decomposing matter.

“In some ways it seemed like science-fiction: being able to measure the biodiversity of a whole area from a bottle of water,” laughs Gert-Jan.

Indeed, at the outset he was not even sure if the idea would work, but he already has some promising results. The overall project earned a national grant for innovative research that aids New Zealand’s marine challenges.

Gert-Jan’s first achievement was to determine the best way of extracting eDNA from water samples. His review of prior research had shown that different researchers were using a variety of different methods to extract eDNA from their water samples, without attempting to find the best one. So, he set about comparing the methods to see which gave the highest DNA yields and most consistent results.

Having identified the best protocol, the next step was to find out how well the eDNA signal is representing the true biodiversity found in a particular habitat.

“The challenge is that we are picking up a DNA signal left behind by organisms we are not directly observing. Up till now we are unsure if this signal is from a local origin or if water movement is transporting DNA a great distance,” explains Gert-Jan.

To assess the reliability of the signal, he has been testing the quality of eDNA’s spatial resolution – in other words: how far the DNA is being transported by water movement. Meanwhile, one of his supervisors, Dr. Michael Knapp, is studying eDNA’s temporal resolution – how time, tides and seasons affect the story that eDNA tells us.

A perfect location

A half hour drive from the University is a perfect and spectacular location for this research: Aramoana, or ‘pathway to the sea’. This small village guards the northern side of the Otago Harbour’s entrance to the ocean. Its beach is famous for great surfing both in the water and on the sand dunes behind it. From the white and wind-swept beach extends a long, narrow man-made mole, which serves as a home for kelp forest and a shelter for the mudflats lying behind it.

This unique setting of exposed sandy beach, rocky shore with kelp forest, and sheltered mudflat, provides three habitats in close proximity with greatly differentiated marine communities - a great place to assess eDNA transfer between different areas, explains Gert-Jan. “We know the species that are present at each of these sites. Sequencing the eDNA by metabarcoding will tell us if the DNA signal from the species specific to each site is being transported to the other sites or not.”

So far the results have been very encouraging. Gert-Jan has found clear differences in the eDNA signal of the three habitats, meaning that eDNA gives an accurate picture of the local area. Gert-Jan hopes this research will eventually lead to a quicker, cheaper and more reliable way to monitor the marine environment.

He has also relished the chance to get out of the lab and conduct research within an environment that constantly reminds him why his research is necessary.