Environmental DNA (eDNA)

Science Center Objects

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is organismal DNA that can be found in the environment. Environmental DNA originates from cellular material shed by organisms (via skin, excrement, etc.) into aquatic or terrestrial environments that can be sampled and monitored using new molecular methods. Such methodology is important for the early detection of invasive species as well as the detection of rare and cryptic species.

•  Water Science School HOME  •  Water Quality topics  •  

What is Environmental DNA?

Diagram showing environmental DNA with a fish

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is used to identify species in water bodies. (Credit: FISHBIO)

DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in organisms that contains the biological instructions for building and maintaining them. The chemical structure of DNA is the same for all organisms, but differences exist in the order of the DNA building blocks, known as base pairs. Unique sequences of base pairs, particularly repeating patterns, provide a means to identify species, populations, and even individuals.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is nuclear or mitochondrial DNA that is released from an organism into the environment. Sources of eDNA include secreted feces, mucous, and gametes; shed skin and hair; and carcasses. eDNA can be detected in cellular or extracellular (dissolved DNA) form.

In aquatic environments, eDNA is diluted and distributed by currents and other hydrological processes (fig. 1), but it only lasts about 7–21 days, depending on environmental conditions (Dejean and others, 2011). Exposure to UVB radiation, acidity, heat, and endo- and exonucleases can degrade eDNA.

Use of eDNA for Inventory and Monitoring

Improved Detection of Native Species

Protocols using eDNA may allow for rapid, cost-effective, and standardized collection of data about species distribution and relative abundance. For small, rare, secretive, and other species that are difficult to detect, eDNA provides an attractive alternative for aquatic inventory and monitoring programs. Increasing evidence demonstrates improved species detection and catch-per-unit effort compared with electrofishing, snorkeling, and other current field methods. Thus, detection of species using eDNA may improve biodiversity assessments and provide information about status, distribution, and habitat requirements for lesser-known species.

Early Detection of Invasive Species

eDNA may also be an effective tool for early detection of aquatic invasive species. Application of eDNA methods for invasive species monitoring may include periodically collecting water samples and screening them for several invasive species at once. Boat-ballast water, a source of introduction for many invasive species including mollusks, also could be sampled. Some intensive eradication programs for invasive species fail when a few surviving individuals recolonize the ecosystem. eDNA methods may provide a means of confirming eradication of all invaders.


Source: Application of Environmental DNA for Inventory and Monitoring of Aquatic Species