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Keeping Dibs on Marine Life by Sequencing

We all know that DNA sequencing is making inroads into healthcare, but KQED reports that the technology is also being used by scientists in California's Monterey Bay for marine conservation efforts.

Using a sequencing-based approach dubbed "environmental DNA," or eDNA, they are keeping inventory of DNA that is shed by organisms into the oceans and then figuring out what organisms have been in the area. While the technique can't say how many of a specific animal is in any given area, it can give an indication that the animal has been present in that part of the ocean. 

"It's been amazing what we can detect in just a liter of seawater," Jesse Port, an environmental genomicist at the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University, tells KQED, adding that he can get 150 million sequence reads for a given sequence run. 

The new approach is made possible by the dropping cost of sequencing technology. According to Port, sequencing one sample of seawater costs $1,500.

"This was just not possible five, 10 years ago," he says. "And sequencing technology is just going to get better, so this will probably get even cheaper." 

The method also is much quicker than a traditional marine census in which an individual counts the number of fish and other marine life and records it on a waterproof clipboard. 

Such efforts are being made as part of conservation efforts and to figure whether the numbers of fish in California are increasing. About 16 percent of state waters are now protected in order to restore marine life in the state, but to gauge the success of the project, underwater surveys, which aren't cheap, must be conducted each year. KQED reports that California made available $16 million for monitoring studies, but in some areas, the funding has already run out, though universities, foundations, and volunteers have stepped in to fill the gap. 

Using eDNA would be a more cost-effective approach to keep track of fish and marine life numbers, though work still needs to be done to perfect it. While sequencing can detect the DNA of fish, it can't tell whether it came from the fish or something it ate miles away. It also can determine whether the DNA came in on the tide. Port is working out the kinks, and KQED says that if the technology is proven successful, "it could revolutionize how marine monitoring is done."