Perfect match: DNA library to help identify species

September 19th, 2023

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is shed by plants and animals into the environment. We can detect these tiny traces left by living things and use them to monitor biodiversity.

Collecting eDNA is as easy as taking a sample of soil, air or water. Imagine collecting a bucket of seawater from a reef, filtering the tiny pieces of DNA, sequencing their unique codes and then matching those codes to species. That bucket of seawater could tell you every species present on that reef. It would save you sending out a team of divers or watching countless hours of underwater footage as a result. 

But eDNA is only useful if we can match it to the species it belongs to. 

Building a National Biodiversity DNA Library

Our researcher Dr Jenny Giles said marine species are common targets for eDNA studies.

“To read eDNA, we need to be able to match it to the species it came from. At the moment, researchers can only identify a small fraction of eDNA detected in marine studies. This is because there’s a lack of suitable DNA reference sequences,” she said.

Matching eDNA to a DNA reference sequence for a species is just like matching a marine animal to a photo of its species.

“To solve this problem, we decided to create a new DNA reference library. But it’s not just for marine species,” Jenny said.

“We’re building a comprehensive collection of DNA reference sequences for all known Australian animal and plant species. It will be accessible via an online portal so researchers, industries and governments can monitor our environment into the future.”

Using eDNA for monitoring and conservation

We are partnering with Minderoo Foundation to fund DNA reference sequences for marine vertebrate animals in the new DNA library. This will include fish, whales and dolphins, seals, turtles, sea snakes and sea birds.

These DNA reference sequences will enable eDNA studies to detect and map marine animals all around Australia. eDNA studies can do this cheaply, on a huge scale and at a detailed resolution. Also, eDNA studies are easy to repeat at different times of the year and achievable in remote locations.

So creating a full set of DNA reference sequences for Australia’s marine vertebrate animals will transform monitoring for these species.


Working with collections

Around 5500 scientifically named species of marine vertebrates live in Australian waters. Australia’s research collections including our Australian National Fish Collection and Australian National Wildlife Collection hold specimens of Australia’s species, identified by experts. Working with Bioplatforms Australia, we will use small samples of tissue from these specimens for creating DNA reference sequences.

We will use laboratory techniques we developed to create DNA reference sequences from specimens in natural history collections. Our techniques are high-throughput and work across all species from bugs to barramundi. By sequencing full reference genomes used for species identification for each species, our library will compatible with existing libraries, which use partial reference genomes.

Australia is home to around 700,000 species of plants, animals and other organisms like fungi and algae. Of these, only around a third have scientific names. Ultimately, we aim to include all named species of animals, plants and other key groups for biomonitoring in the National Biodiversity DNA Library.

Bioplatforms Australia is enabled by the Commonwealth Government National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.