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An innovative use of the detritus of marine life to measure bio-diversity has earned a team of Otago researchers a national Sustainable Seas Science Challenge Grant.

Sustainable seas thumbnail. For all its mountains, forests and birds, New Zealand’s environment is as much marine as it is terrestrial. A pearl surrounded by ocean, New Zealand’s vast coast and sea life is vital to our economy, our tourism, even our identity. Changes in the marine eco-system, especially its bio-diversity, are a big deal.

But have you ever wondered how we monitor what’s going on in this immense and complicated eco-system? Armies of scientists traversing the shore, counting starfish and crabs and filling out log books? Not quite, but existing techniques are labour-intensive, costly and, being limited to samples of indicator species and sites, can only estimate biodiversity and eco-system health.

These existing techniques greatly inhibit our ability to effectively manage marine biodiversity, says Dr. Michael Knapp, a Rutherford Discovery Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Otago’s Department of Anatomy. ‘We need continuous biodiversity information from our vast marine ecosystems. We need a quick and cost efficient strategy to monitor marine biodiversity.’

The project, led by Dr. Knapp and Prof. Neil Gemmell, aims to develop such a strategy by establishing and testing an innovative, cost efficient approach for quantifying marine biodiversity. At the heart of this strategy are the remnants of marine life that can be found in soil and water everywhere: environmental DNA (eDNA). In other words, DNA from all the bits and pieces that animals shed in life and death - hair, skin, feces, mucus, carcasses, and so on.

The project will work out an innovative, high-throughput and cost efficient strategy to quantify marine biodiversity, using eDNA from marine water samples.

The University of Otago is a great place for such innovation, says Dr. Knapp. “The combination of genomics expertise and infrastructure, expertise in marine ecology and the proximity to varied marine ecosystems, makes Otago an ideal setting for the success of our project.”

Dr. Knapp will lead the project with Professor Neil Gemmell, whose lab blends genomics with ecology, population, conservation and evolutionary biology, to the benefit of conservation, biosecurity, fisheries and agricultural areas. Also working on the project will be PhD student Gert-Jan Jeunen from Otago’s Department of Anatomy, customary fisheries management expert Dr. Chris Hepburn and biological oceanographer Dr. Federico Baltar, both from the University of Otago’s Marine Science Department, and eDNA expert Professor Mike Bunce from Curtin University, Perth.

Forming spectacular backdrops for the project, as well as worthy beneficiaries, will be the South Island’s spectacular Karitane coastline and the world renowned Milford Sound.

The initial work will take place off the Karitane Coast, in the East Otago Taiāpure - a coastal area given special status under law so that local iwi or hapū can exercise their rangatiratanga over the area and be involved in its management. The project will build on 10 years of intensive research in the Taiāpure, which was led by Dr. Hepburn and supported by the Taiāpure and local Rūnaka Kati Huirapa ki Puketeraki and Te Runanga o Ngāi Tahu.

The project will eventually help communities around the country manage their local eco-systems, with simple, web-based tools to explore the eDNA data. “We hope scientists and non-scientists can use this information to do their own research and manage the marine environment,” says Dr. Knapp, adding that the researchers will work closely with the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Primary Industries and kaitiaki (Māori guardians of the sea).

Before that, the data will need to be fully tested and made robust for decision making. Once the project team establishes a sampling and analyses pipeline, the data’s accuracy will be tested in Milford Sound in the project’s second year. Milford Sound eDNA data will be compared with detailed species lists for Milford Sound obtained through conventional means.

“Our project will establish a new standard for quantifying marine biodiversity, empowering long-term ecosystem-based management of New Zealand's marine resources," hopes Dr. Knapp.

For their innovative thinking, the project team has been granted NZ$150,000 per year for two years, under the Sustainable Seas Science Challenge. The challenge aims to enhance the use of New Zealand’s marine resources, while ensuring the marine environment is understood, cared for and used wisely for the benefit of all.

The eDNA project’s originality and innovation was certainly an ideal candidate for the Challenge. “We asked for innovative ideas that would bring new ways of doing things that involved industry and communities coming together to apply their thinking in a way that has not been seen before", said Challenge Director Dr Julie Hall, when announcing eight grants, of which the eDNA project is one.

The Sustainable Seas Science Challenge is part of the National Science Challenges, set up by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, to provide funding to New Zealand researchers to tackle some of the biggest science-based issues and opportunities facing New Zealand.