Environmental DNA monitoring a potential “game changer for Aotearoa New Zealand”
21 November 2022
The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is urging Aotearoa New Zealand to move with the times and take advantage of new DNA technology to monitor and report on the state of our environment.
“Where there are impacts on our environment we need to make good decisions. It goes without saying you can’t make good decisions without good data,” says EPA Chief Executive Dr Allan Freeth who, along with Prof Michael Bunce, has co-authored a journal article on the subject.
Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is the tiny traces of genetic material left behind as living things pass through water or soil. New DNA sequencing technologies mean it is now possible to rapidly “barcode” this remnant genetic material.
Professor Bunce, an internationally renowned genetics expert and former EPA Chief Scientist, says, “For hundreds of years, the way we have monitored the animals and plants around us has followed a ‘catch, look and (sometimes), kill’ approach. We literally catch our target and look at it via field surveys - or, more recently, using cameras.
“Environmental DNA sampling gets us far closer to an ecosystem-wide picture – from the microbes right through to the mega fauna. It’s this level of detail that we need to build a detailed picture of the health and composition of our ecosystems. We’re only just starting to scratch the surface with how we could be using eDNA in Aotearoa.”
Prof Bunce and Dr Freeth say there is an urgent need to monitor our environments more efficiently and holistically, and this includes drinking water, wastewater, rivers, oceans, soils and air.
“At the core of our environmental degradation problem is the fact that it is difficult to consent - or put conditions on - activities that impact on the environment when you can’t measure or track the impacts on living things, especially ecosystem health,” says Dr Freeth.
“Environmental DNA sampling would go some way to filling the information gaps that currently exist at the EPA but also across the wider sector. If embraced more fully, it could be a real game changer for this country.
There are several examples of eDNA technology already being used in New Zealand.
Researchers at the Cawthron Institute are using eDNA to assess the health of 10 percent of our lakes.
The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) is using traces of viral genetic material in wastewater as a proxy for COVID-19 in our communities.
eDNA is being used by regional councils to monitor native and invasive fish species following a pilot at 45 sites across the country.
eDNA is increasingly being used to monitor our ports and waterways for invasive species. If we catch them early, control and containment becomes more feasible.
The EPA’s Wai Tuwhera o te Taiao – Open Waters Aotearoa programme, set up under the leadership of Prof Bunce in 2020, has enabled over 200 community groups, hapū and kura to test their local waterways using the eDNA toolkit.
Dr Freeth says, “In his 2019 report, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment lamented the fragmented nature of environmental reporting across the motu and advocated for more joined-up thinking.
“In his follow-up report last month, the commissioner went further and noted that ‘current monitoring suffers from methodological inconsistencies, poor representativity and inadequate spatial and temporal coverage’. Given the pressing need for good data it’s vital that we explore technological solutions that can address our poor environmental report card.
“We believe there is nothing in the current New Zealand environmental legislative framework that will prevent the use of eDNA as a regulatory control or monitoring technique.
“The traditional methods can be time consuming and costly. Using eDNA sampling and analysis not only provides a much fuller and more nuanced picture but is faster and can be done at a fraction of the cost. We still need existing methods, but we can be smarter about when and where to deploy them. Getting this right means the conservation dollar can be stretched that much further.
“The EPA’s community engagement programme using eDNA has been a real success. If our communities can use it, so too can our industries. We strongly encourage those with environmental footprints, regardless of the industry, to start exploring and implementing eDNA for baseline surveys and ongoing monitoring. And there’s no better time to start than now.”
Read the full Policy Quarterly article: Looking further and deeper into environmental protection, regulation and policy using environmental DNA (eDNA) - Victoria University of Wellington Library website