How environmental DNA is giving scientists a new way to understand our world

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In the late 1980s, at a federal research facility in Pensacola, Florida, Tamar Barkay used mud in a way that proved revolutionary in a manner she could never have imagined at the time: a crude version of a technique that is now shaking up many scientific fields. Barkay had collected several samples of mud — one from an inland reservoir, another from a brackish bayou, and a third from a low-lying saltwater swamp. She put these sediment samples in glass bottles in the lab, and then added mercury, creating what amounted to toxic sludge.

At the time, Barkay worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and she wanted to know how microorganisms in mud interact with mercury, an industrial pollutant, which required an understanding of all the organisms in a given environment — not just the tiny portion that could be successfully grown in Petri dishes in the lab. But the underlying question was so basic that it remains one of those fundamental driving queries across biology. As Barkay, who is now retired, put it in a recent interview from Boulder, Colorado: “Who is there?” And, just as important, she added: “What are they doing there?”

Such questions are still relevant today, asked by ecologists, public health officials, conservation biologists, forensic practitioners, and those studying evolution and ancient environments — and they drive shoe-leather epidemiologists and biologists to far-flung corners of the world.

The 1987 paper Barkay and her colleagues published in the Journal of Microbiological Methods outlined a method “Direct Environmental DNA Extraction” — that would allow researchers to take a census. It was a practical tool, albeit a rather messy one, for detecting who was out there. Barkay used it for the rest of her career.

Today, the study gets cited as an early glimpse of eDNA, or environmental DNA, a relatively inexpensive, widespread, potentially automated way to observe the diversity and distribution of life. Unlike previous techniques, which could identify DNA from, say, a single organism, the method also collects the swirling cloud of other genetic material that surrounds it. In recent years, the field has grown significantly. “It’s got its own journal,” said Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s got its own society, scientific society. It has b...

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