Understanding how biodiversity is changing over time is critical to determine how human activity is changing ecosystems and the services they provide. However, conventional approaches to identifying species using observable features, whilst often providing a gold standard, are often time-consuming and rely on a dwindling pool of expertise, especially for cryptic, rare or small species. DNA based approaches for assessing community composition have great potential to reduce costs, both through reductions in sampling and identification time, as well as the ability to identify cryptic genetic diversity and to gain insights into less well-studied organisms.
The environmental DNA (eDNA) task in UK-SCAPE aims to develop, apply and evaluate DNA sampling techniques based on high throughput sequencing to characterise terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, demonstrating the applicability of these approaches for national-scale monitoring of biodiversity.
The use of environmental DNA (eDNA) to detect individual species or to characterise whole communities is a rapidly growing field, and has matured to the point where national monitoring agencies such as the EA, SEPA, NRW and Natural England are exploring the use of these approaches to supplement or replace existing biological monitoring programmes. This creates a significant opportunity to repurpose existing samples and environmental eDNA samples, collected under a range of monitoring activities, to characterise biodiversity for a wider range of species in more taxonomic detail. By leveraging existing sampling programmes this approach has the potential to be an extremely cost-effective and rapid workflow for generating freshwater biodiversity data at a nationwide scale.