What is the future of eDNA?

If we can get whole genomes without even seeing the animal, is there anything eDNA can't do?
10 August 2021

Interview with 

Eske Willerslev, University of Cambridge; Beth Clare, York University, Toronto


The Earth in space orbiting round the sun.


Phil Sansom and Sally Le Page spoke with Eske Willerslev from University of Cambridge and Beth Clare from York University, Toronto about the future of eDNA...

Phil - Can you give me an idea of the limits of this?

Eske - I think the biggest limitation right now is, you can say, reference material or reference sequences because if you take an insect out, right, you can identify, in many cases you can say this is this species of insect. With environmental DNA, whether you are doing metabarcoding, or shotgun, you're relying on databases, you're relying on somebody else having sequenced that species before. And if they haven't done that, you're kind of in a situation where you can say, well, this is an insect, but I don't know exactly what insect I'm dealing with. Of course these databases are exponentially growing. So people are sequencing more and more and more. So, my prediction would be within that 10-year period, we will really have that reference. But at the moment it is a limitation.

Sally - And if we can get to the point where we've got a reference genome for every species on the planet and we can get genomes from animals without even seeing them, that's just going to revolutionise everything!

Beth - It already is. You've got entire groups of people now using eDNA in the water. Everybody from research scientists to conservation management organisations that are using that substance to help them track and monitor populations for different applications.

Sally - Just like what Kat's doing with the aquatic surveys around the world!

Beth - Exactly. It's become a commercial industry. It's a research industry. It's a management and regulatory industry. All of these different sectors have taken up eDNA as a way of doing their jobs more efficiently and understanding all of those factors, which make that possible is what we really need to do to push that field forward. And if we can push it into other realms, terrestrial life, through air and soil, the most unusual sources like honey, tracking eDNA and different things like that, that have been used allows you to really expand this field in a way that I don't think anybody could've predicted 10 years ago. So, Eske’s ten-year prediction for genomes from substances: I'll give him five.

Sally - Wow, five years. That will be very exciting.

Eske - It's really just the imagination that are the limits of how you can use it.


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