New ‘Go Fish’ tool to study marine life

An innovative tool that can confirm the recent presence of any given fish species in a sample of water is among the marvels to be highlighted at the two-day National Conference on Marine Environmental DNA here beginning on Thursday.

About 100 pioneering practitioners and users of eDNA science — a mighty complement to traditional marine life monitoring systems — will convene to detail and share discoveries, state-of-the-art technologies and new methods.

The new tool created at The Rockefeller University, which will host the conference, offers, for example, a chemical shortcut for researchers to test for the eDNA of a specific, individual species in a water sample.

It makes use of the fact that every species leaves a trail of genetic residue — skin cells, excretions, other DNA — as it moves.

Scientists can now test water and soil for these traces and identify which species left them behind.

The eDNA tester can confirm the genetic presence of a given species in a water sample within three days — a small fraction of the usual month or more involved in the current practice of lab testing for any and all species, or to mount an expedition with nets and analyse the results.

Its creator, Mark Stoeckle, Senior Research Associate at The Rockefeller University’s Programme for the Human Environment, said that many reasons make authorities want to know when a given marine species is present — to determine for example when to open or close a commercial fishery, or when dredging can be done without harm to marine life.

The New York Harbour, he notes, restricts dredging if winter flounder are present.

He likens his innovation to ‘Go Fish’, the children’s game in which a player asks another for a given rank of card, for example: Do you have any jacks in your hand? says Stoeckle.

“In the case of New York, the question would be: Where in the harbour do we have the winter flounder?”

The current cost to produce a ‘Go Fish’ eDNA tool is $15 per sample (one species); additional species can be added for $8 per sample.

Says conference lead organizer Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Programme for the Human Environment: “‘Go Fish’ brings us close to a chatbot or small smart personal assistant — like Siri, Alexa, or Cortana — that can quickly identify species from eDNA.”

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