eDNA being used

Breakthroughs in environmental DNA (eDNA) and biomonitoring help the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster.

Passive Sampling and eDNA

A team of researchers Led by Neil Gemmel, a university of Otago geneticist, are using environmental DNA sampling, or eDNA, to locate Nessie’s genetic fingerprint.  What is eDNA?  eDNA is the compilation of all the little pieces that organisms leave behind as they go about their daily lives – skin, hair, eggs, sperm, and yes… even poop.  This bio waste gets mixed into the surrounding environment and a single vial of water or soil can be used to create a veritable genetic library of the ecosystem.

This process, often referred to as biomonitoring, has substantial potential, and has already helped define numerous environmental anomalies.  In 2011, biologists published a paper about eDNA’s use to determine that Asian carp had moved up the canals around Chicago, suggesting the next invasion of the specious would be the Great Lakes.  In 2016, biologists used the methods to study the genetics of a swarm of whale sharks of the coast of Qatar, and in 2017 researchers isolated the DNA of Neanderthals from soil in Spain, Belgium, and Russia.

Which brings us back to Nessie.  It’s long been rumored that a massive creature lives in the deep fresh waters of the Ness lake, in northern Scotland.  The tale has been told of sightings of a long-necked reptilian creature, some arguing it must be a plesiosaur, which would match the often regaled attributes of the beast.  However, with plesiosaurs going extinct some 66 million years ago, and scientists arguing there are not enough fish in the lake to feed a creature so large, the rumors seem far-fetched.  Other suggestions for the creature are two large fish, the sturgeon, and the Wels Catfish – neither of which have ever been captured in the lake and are unlikely candidates based upon the long-standing description of the monster.  Either way, the conclusion of the eDNA study of the lake, set to wrap up in early 2019, will not only put the Loch Ness Monster infamy to rest, but will also profile the entire Loch Ness ecosystem – information that will help monitor for invasive species.

eDNA genetic fingerprint via passive sampling
Using passive sampling to find Nesse's genetic fingerprint

Passive Sampling and the C.L.A.M.

Within the first two weeks the team had collected 259 water samples from various parts of the loch, including its chilly depths, more than 200 meters down.  The team was most likely using grab sampling for their water sample collections, but this only highlights snippets in time.  These snapshots into the lake’s ecosystem are then pieced together to create a more comprehensive view. The CLAM changes the researchers standpoint from “data poor” to “data rich”.  The CLAM provides passive sampling as well as continuous monitoring.  Once deployed it is capable of collecting a comprehensive water sample for a 36 hour period.  If we compared water sampling to the world of cinema then we could make the following comparison.  Grab sampling produces results equivalent to a movie trailer (at best), while the CLAM provides the full-length feature film along with the directors cut footage.  Where passive sampling is concerned for organic compounds, the CLAM has quickly risen as the top modern-day technology. Initially, Gemmel and the team were hesitant to include or even speak of the Loch Ness monster in their efforts, but they realized the added publicity would bring much needed interest in the amazing and growing possibilities of environmental DNA (eDNA) and biomonitoring.