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eDNA technology could revolutionise biodiversity monitoring

Choki Wangmo 

Bhutan could save millions on biodiversity monitoring and assessments if environmental DNA (eDNA) sequencing technology could be used in the country, according to experts.   

The technology offers cost-effective biodiversity monitoring, potentially saving millions for government and conservation agencies in environmental assessments.

It is a collection of mitochondrial DNA such as faeces, mucous, shed skin and hair, and carcasses that are released from an organism into the environment, and these are used for biodiversity monitoring and assessment. Reports show that it is quickly gaining popularity across the world in the last decade.

The process involves DNA extraction, amplification, and sequencing.

For example, when a fish moves through the water, it constantly sheds a bit of itself like dead skin cells, mucus, or faeces into its surroundings. A researcher can test the sample of the water to study to indicate the recent presence of the fish, even if no fish is seen.

Currently, with the conventional method of sample collection such as camera trappings, the government spends millions to conduct a single survey. It costs Nu 400 million for the national tiger survey, for instance.

The pilot eDNA survey was conducted last year in the south-central region, mostly in the Mangdechhu basin. Within an area of 1,200 square km, the team from the forest department detected 600 species of wildlife, including new, and threatened species. They were virtually trained by France-based eDNA company Spygen.

At the symposium in Thimphu yesterday, Arnaud Lyed from WWF US said the data can be collected from any kind of environment—freshwater, marine, terrestrial, and aerial. “Studies proved that the eDNA was critical in detecting endangered species such as pangolin, early detection of invasive species such as armyworms, and monitoring high-risk pathogens, among others.”

In Bhutan, he said that the method could be used for biodiversity monitoring, a tool for environmental impact assessment, and map distribution of rare, cryptic, and high-value species.

Nature Conservation Division (NCD) Chief Sonam Wangdi said that eDNA would address one of the biggest challenges in wildlife conservation, which is getting accurate information on the species. 

He said that the manual data collection methods take time and resources, and is limited in scope.

WWF Bhutan Country Director, Chimi Rinzin, said that Bhutan has a unique opportunity to become a global leader in eDNA surveys. “By leveraging this technology, we can enhance our capacity to understand and monitor biodiversity in a more comprehensive and efficient manner.”

However, the country still cannot roll out the technology as Bhutan does not have a reference lab. A lab is crucial for DNA amplification and sequencing.

“Exporting the samples for laboratory tests is expensive. There are national and international protocols for exporting biological samples,” deputy chief of NCD, Letro said.

Bhutan has recorded 11,000 species to date. In recent years, the recorded sightings have increased manifold.