Dr Katrina West

Katrina West is a Research Scientist in the CSIRO Australian National Fish Collection and Environomics FSP. Her research focuses on extending environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding capabilities and applications for Australian marine fish and elasmobranch monitoring. At present, she is testing the application of long-range DNA amplification and sequencing technologies to eDNA metabarcoding workflows, with the goal of improving species delimitation and elucidating population haplotype information.

Katrina undertaking eDNA sampling at Ball’s Pyramid, Lord Howe Island.

Why choose a career in science?

Growing up in the market gardens of Perth, I was either in the dirt, reading, or avoiding farm chores by escaping to the nearby bush and beach. I’ve been heavily interested in human/animal migrations and evolution since I was a teenager and this shaped my desire to study undergraduate genetics, archaeology and zoology at the University of Western Australia.

What path have you followed to now?

I combined my passions for genetics and archaeology by completing a masters degree in Ancient DNA research at the University of Otago, NZ. Here, I learnt how to target and recover trace amounts of DNA from ancient bones (> 2000 years old) excavated from the earliest Polynesian settlements across the Pacific. Examining the DNA data (and accumulated mutations across island groups) allowed us to trace the island-hopping Polynesian migration route. After this, I moved back to Perth to complete my PhD in the TrEnD Lab at Curtin University. This lab pioneered eDNA and ancient DNA metabarcoding techniques for species detection. Given the trace DNA target, it was very easy to transition from ancient DNA to eDNA research. I completed a PhD in eDNA metabarcoding for aquatic monitoring in Australia’s Indian Ocean region. Here, I applied eDNA metabarcoding to profile species compositions in the coral reefs of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the vast coastlines of the Kimberley, and in the caves of Christmas Island. I have recently completed my first postdoc in the CSIRO Australian National Fish Collection, based in Hobart, Tasmania, continuing eDNA research for fish and elasmobranch monitoring.

What is exciting about your project?

Makeshift eDNA filtering station at Bidyadanga Community, Western Australia

I am really excited about pushing the boundary of what eDNA information we can retrieve from the marine environment. At present, we can produce robust presence-absence community compositional data from eDNA methods. When applied at a regional level, we can generate comprehensive species datasets that can, for example, distinguish marine biogeographic breaks, identify the effect of depth, spatial and temporal variables, analyse patterns of microbial and eukaryotic species to determine “healthy” ecosystems, and notably pinpoint the locations of critically endangered and cryptic species. As part of the Environomics FSP, I am optimising methods to retrieve higher abundant, better quality and longer fragments of eDNA. From this, I envisage that we can produce expanded eDNA datasets that can answer questions regarding species and site connectivity, estimate minimum population sizes and genetic diversity. What differentiates this potential technology from other established population genetic methods, is that it could provide simultaneous genetic information and distributional data from hundreds of species at scale.

What other interests do you have?

Outside of work I enjoy scuba diving, camping and un-officially judging pies from country bakeries.