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Composition and distribution of fish environmental DNA in an Adirondack watershed

February 26, 2021

Background

Environmental DNA (eDNA) surveys are appealing options for monitoring aquatic biodiversity. While factors affecting eDNA persistence, capture and amplification have been heavily studied, watershed-scale surveys of fish communities and our confidence in such need further exploration.

Methods

We characterized fish eDNA compositions using rapid, low-volume filtering with replicate and control samples scaled for a single Illumina MiSeq flow cell, using the mitochondrial 12S ribosomal RNA locus for taxonomic profiling. Our goals were to determine: (1) spatiotemporal variation in eDNA abundance, (2) the filtrate needed to achieve strong sequencing libraries, (3) the taxonomic resolution of 12S ribosomal sequences in the study environment, (4) the portion of the expected fish community detectable by 12S sequencing, (5) biases in species recovery, (6) correlations between eDNA compositions and catch per unit effort (CPUE) and (7) the extent that eDNA profiles reflect major watershed features. Our bioinformatic approach included (1) estimation of sequencing error from unambiguous mappings and simulation of taxonomic assignment error under various mapping criteria; (2) binning of species based on inferred assignment error rather than by taxonomic rank; and (3) visualization of mismatch distributions to facilitate discovery of distinct haplotypes attributed to the same reference. Our approach was implemented within the St. Regis River, NY, USA, which supports tribal and recreational fisheries and has been a target of restoration activities. We used a large record of St. Regis-specific observations to validate our assignments.

Results

We found that 300 mL drawn through 25-mm cellulose nitrate filters yielded greater than 5 ng/µL DNA at most sites in summer, which was an approximate threshold for generating strong sequencing libraries in our hands. Using inferred sequence error rates, we binned 12S references for 110 species on a state checklist into 85 single-species bins and seven multispecies bins. Of 48 bins observed by capture survey in the St. Regis, we detected eDNA consistent with 40, with an additional four detections flagged as potential contaminants. Sixteen unobserved species detected by eDNA ranged from plausible to implausible based on distributional data, whereas six observed species had no 12S reference sequence. Summed log-ratio compositions of eDNA-detected taxa correlated with log(CPUE) (Pearson’s R = 0.655, P < 0.001). Shifts in eDNA composition of several taxa and a genotypic shift in channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) coincided with the Hogansburg Dam, NY, USA. In summary, a simple filtering apparatus operated by field crews without prior expertise gave useful summaries of eDNA composition with minimal evidence of field contamination. 12S sequencing achieved useful taxonomic resolution despite the short marker length, and data exploration with standard bioinformatic tools clarified taxonomic uncertainty and sources of error.