The power of environmental DNA (eDNA) technology is being extended to community groups across Canada to allow for faster creation of more robust freshwater health data.

This is a result of a new $2.6 million partnership between World Wildlife Fund Canada (WWF-Canada), Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Living Lakes Canada, Genome Canada, and Dr. Mehrdad Hajibabaei of the University of Guelph.

“Our Watershed Reports found a shocking data gap with respect to freshwater health, despite the heroic efforts of community groups, staff and volunteers dedicated to safeguarding this essential public resource,” said Elizabeth Hendriks, vice-president of freshwater conservation at WWF-Canada. “This commitment brings community-based monitoring into the 21st century. Considering the increasing stress caused by climate change and the cumulative effects of other human activities, not to mention major developments on the horizon, the timing couldn’t be more perfect.”

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eDNA metabarcoding is a combination of DNA identification and automated DNA sequencing to generate biodiversity data for freshwater benthic macroinvertebrates, the small animals that live at the bottom of streams and rivers. Changes in the make-up of these invertebrate communities can be excellent indicators of pollution and other environmental stressors.

Compared to current monitoring methods, which can be slow and costly, eDNA metabarcoding technology has the potential to produce biodiversity data more quickly, more affordably, and at a higher resolution. The results of DNA-based biomonitoring will support better environmental assessment, planning, and regulatory decisions – which is essential as population growth, agricultural activity, resource development, and climate change all put increasing pressure on Canada’s freshwater ecosystems.

“We are very excited to be testing this new DNA technology on the ground with and for community groups who have the most to gain in understanding stream health through the sequencing of DNA for biodiversity purposes,” said Kat Hartwig, executive director for Living Lakes Canada. “This technology will be a gamechanger and is very timely given the urgent need to understand the health of our respective watersheds in Canada.”

While many community groups already use biomonitoring to understand and manage the impacts of resource projects such as mines, hydro dams, and energy projects, access to new genomics-based techniques for assessing watershed health will broaden the reach and impact of existing community-based monitoring programs, ultimately leading to better and faster data for informed decision-making.

Funding for this project, called STREAM DNA (Sequencing the River for Environmental Assessment and Monitoring) is provided by Genome Canada, WWF-Canada and ECCC.

“This project is a stepping stone in the application of eDNA metabarcoding for large-scale assessment of watershed health,” said Mehrdad Hajibabaei, associate professor, academic project lead, University of Guelph. “Our lab has pioneered the use of advanced DNA technologies for biodiversity analysis for over a decade and we are very pleased in joining forces with WWF-Canada, Living Lakes Canada, ECCC, and various other stakeholders and citizen scientists in using this approach for our valuable watersheds.”

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