Using environmental DNA in surveillance and monitoring

JNCC is keen to track and implement new technologies that can improve the performance and cost-effectiveness of biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring. DNA analysis represents one such rapidly developing approach with the potential for a wide range of uses. The technique allows species to be identified using DNA obtained either from the whole organism (e.g. insects in a pitfall trap) or from bulk samples of the environment (e.g. water or soil samples). The latter approach is termed environmental DNA (eDNA) and analyses trace DNA originating from the skin, urine etc. of organisms that are/were present in the environment (Bohmann et al. 2014).

JNCC was instrumental in specifying and supporting a Defra-led project to trial the use of eDNA as a detection method for great crested newts. Great crested newts are difficult to detect using conventional methods, but by analysing eDNA in water samples from ponds, the presence or absence of newts could be determined very reliably. Furthermore, water samples were easy for volunteers to collect, making the eDNA method considerably cheaper than conventional great crested newt surveys, which involve up to four visits by trained surveyors using multiple methods.

JNCC is now chairing the surveillance sub-group of the Defra Great Crested Newt Task Force, in which eDNA is being considered for use in national and local contexts. In addition to targeted, single species studies, eDNA analysis can also be used to provide a more comprehensive inventory of all species present within a sample. As technology develops and costs decline, this multi-species approach may become an important component of routine conservation surveillance across the UK.

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