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Leading the way with eDNA

October 29, 2021

By Adam Harman

Real-time results in the field with PoNtool

What if you could detect rare and invasive aquatic species in the field, in real-time, without having to catch or observe them? Well, that’s exactly what our global Environmental DNA team has been working on—a gamechanger in aquatic ecology and biosecurity.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is genetic material released by organisms into their environment through natural metabolic activities. eDNA has a higher degree of sensitivity than conventional surveys; traditionally, samples are taken in the field and then sent to labs for analysis, potentially taking days or even months depending on how remote the test location is to return results. The newly developed Point of Need Tool (PoNtool) is revolutionary, using the latest eDNA technology to bring the lab to the field; the PoNtool detects species effectively and reliably in situ in under two hours. Also, the PoNtool minimises habitat and animal disturbance and is a rapid, accurate, and non-invasive method for detecting species—saving time, reducing cost and health and safety risks.

The filter used to collect DNA sample.

I’ve been working with Stantec’s global eDNA team and collaborating with our industry partners (Rio Tinto, BHP, and Mineral Resources), leading eDNA laboratories (eDNA frontiers/Curtin University, Precision Biomonitoring), and Government organisations (DBCA1, DPIRD2, and DWER3) to bring the PoNtool into routine use for monitoring and surveillance. Our team is excited to bring this technology to Australia with a proof-of-concept study, targeting the invasive Redclaw crayfish in one of Australia’s harshest environments—the Pilbara region of Western Australia. I’m passionate about protecting aquatic ecosystems and envision this technology will help improve aquatic biosecurity and our efforts to create a sustainable future.

We can’t protect what we can’t detect.

So, how exactly does it work?

First, a water sample is collected and filtered, capturing eDNA. The genetic material is targeted with a species-specific primer and probe assay we’ve modified specifically for the PoNtool. The results are rapid and interpreted on the spot—supporting the team to make faster decisions. A highly sensitive primer and probe assay can be developed for almost any organism, creating endless potential for this technology and species detection in inland waters.

How are we building confidence the technology works?

We’re currently pilot-testing the limits of the PoNtool in the field and laboratory, followed by a landscape-scale trial study across 5,000 kilometres of the Pilbara. Redclaw crayfish, our study target species, was selected because of the biosecurity risk they create; these risks include habitat modification, predation, spreading pathogens, and decreasing overall biodiversity. We will compare real-time Redclaw eDNA with tried and tested laboratory methods and in-field trapping, equipping researchers with validation and feedback loops at each phase of the work plan.

Redclaw crayfish.

What’s next?

Stay tuned for some exciting updates from our proof-of-concept study. We’re making rapid eDNA more accessible for our industry partners and clients. As an early adopter of this technology and multidisciplinary company, Stantec will, in the future, offer eDNA services across a wide range of environments, markets, and industry sectors. There’s a significant upside for PoNtool application beyond surface waters—we’re already planning to use the technology in terrestrial and subterranean environments and sectors such as transportation and agriculture.

How can our clients use this service?

Environmental impact assessments are the first phase in development approvals for many of our clients—the PoNtool can support the required planning process to help limit the impact of activities on threatened species. More of our clients are turning to eDNA as a complementary method because, even in low concentrations, eDNA analysis is reliable in detecting cryptic species—and we can’t protect what we can’t detect.

We’re challenging the process, using eDNA in a faster, more efficient way. The PoNtool will help inform the decision-making process early on, enabling innovation, future-focused thinking, and real-time management responses. And, of course, the PoNtool has the potential for expansion across other areas.

Get in touch if you would like to learn more about the PoNtool and how it can support your business.

  • Adam Harman

    As Principal Environmental Scientist, Adam specialises in managing aquatic ecosystems. Passionate about biodiversity, Adam aims to promote environmental awareness and ethical practices.

    Contact Adam
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