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Researchers in China are using DNA sequencing to monitor the environmental health of rivers like the Mekong, New Scientist reports. That way, it adds, they can inform construction projects about hydropower dams could be built to lessen their environmental impact.

Douglas Yu at the Kunming Institute of Zoology is scouring the river for pieces of DNA to identify what species call it home and whether any of those are rare or vulnerable. More standard survey approaches, he tells New Scientist, would take years to complete.

European researchers recently took a similar approach to survey streams and ponds in France and the Netherlands, New Scientist notes. When they compared those findings to more traditional surveys, they found that the environmental DNA approach uncovered similar numbers of or more fish species at most sites as the standard approach.

While Joseph Fourier University's Pierre Taberlet, who was part of that study, tells New Scientist they were able to identify all fish species present, he's not sure the approach would catch everything in a river's watershed. But Bangor University's Si Creer notes that all survey methods are incomplete.