Monitoring biodiversity with eDNA


Policymakers, at all levels of government, need to be informed by sound science policy advice. COST, with its ‘network of expert networks’, is in an ideal position to contribute over a very wide range of topics. COST funds dissemination activities that engage actively with policymakers and decision takers. And all COST Actions receive specific training opportunities on how to engage with policymakers and increase their policy impact.

COST is also reinforcing its relationship with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) by extending cooperation on ‘science for policy’ activities and working to encourage more JRC researchers to get involved with COST Actions.

A good example of a COST activity that has contributed significantly to science policy advice is COST Action DNAqua-Net (Developing new genetic tools for bioassessment of aquatic ecosystems in Europe) and its work around new techniques to assess biodiversity and water quality.

hand in a blue rubber glove taking a water sample from a pond

Quality water

Under the EU’s Water Framework Directive, the protection of aquatic ecosystems is legally binding for all Member States. But how do you assess the ecological status of a given body of water? Traditionally aquatic biodiversity data based on morpho-taxonomy are obtained and compared to a reference water body. This relies on expert analysis of the number and type of organisms in a water sample, which is time consuming and prone to human error. New genomic tools offer an alternative technique that could complement and, in some cases, replace traditional bioassessment, but a standard methodology is needed. This was the start point for DNAqua-Net.

“The concept behind genomic analysis is to take a water sample, extract DNA, amplify a characteristic marker gene and compare the sequences identified from the environmental DNA – eDNA – with a database,” explains Professor Florian Leese of the University of Duisburg-Essen and Chair of the Action. “This gives a good overview of the biodiversity within the sample and can be done quickly and efficiently. However, many different protocols and methodologies are currently being developed – over 100 different workflows already – so there was a need to harmonise and also assess any gaps in the reference databases.”

DNAqua-Net brought together over 500 participants from 49 countries around the globe including taxonomists, biomonitoring experts, DNA technology developers, policymakers and managers to redefine and improve environmental surveillance.

group photo of large group of people posing on a stage in front of a screen
DNAqua-Net meeting in Duisburg-Essen, March 2017

Comparing technique

scientist in protecting clothes doing tests in a lab

“We organised some 50 exchanges of people between countries to transfer knowledge, compare and share techniques,” says Florian. “This enabled molecular biology experts to visit traditional taxonomy labs – and vice versa – to learn about each other, better understand the limits of the technologies, develop the best methods, and define the boundaries for the technique.”

“A book on best practise was published,” he continues. “Not to define one standard but to document evolving techniques and help ensure that results improve and are comparable.”

DNAqua-Net resulted in notable achievements including the creation of an International Open Access Peer Review Journal, the establishment of EU CEN Working Group on standardisation of eDNA methodologies, and input to ECO–STAT – the European Commission working group on the Water Framework Directive. The Action also organised a one-day session on standardisation methods at the United Nations Science Summit in 2022.

“In total over 100 papers resulted from the Action and two Horizon EU projects are taking up the thoughts and ideas from the Action,” concludes Florian.

“There are numerous pioneer projects at national level – especially at regulatory policy level– with pilot proposals in several countries. In addition, various spin-off companies were initiated or got a massive boost from Action.”

Professor Florian Leese, Chair of DNAaqua-Net

Additional information

View the DNAqua-Net Action webpage

View the DNAqua-Net website

DNAqua-Net publications

DNAqua-Net Flyer

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