It’s all in the genes: eDNA explained

In a collaboration with biodiversity monitoring specialists NatureMetrics, we exolore the vital role of biodiversity in the business landscape, and how eDNA is becoming an indispensable asset in the UK’s drive towards sustainability.

water droplets on glass during daytime

Biodiversity – the variety of life on Earth – is more than just an environmental concern; it is an essential component of a robust and resilient economy. Healthy ecosystems provide services critical to business operations, such as clean water, pollination, climate regulation, and raw materials. The UK, rich in diverse habitats, from its coastline to its upland moors, is a microcosm of global biodiversity.

Recent studies, like the one conducted by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, suggest that businesses greatly depend on biodiversity. It emphasises that over half of the world’s economic output is moderately or highly dependent on nature, indicating the direct link between biodiversity and economic health.

For UK businesses, managing biodiversity is not just about environmental stewardship but also about economic sustainability and risk management. The Natural Capital Committee’s 2020 report to the UK Government highlights the economic consequences of biodiversity loss, underscoring the need for businesses to assess and manage their environmental impact. Ignoring these aspects can lead to increased operational costs, regulatory risks, and reputational damage.

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is emerging as a revolutionary tool in biodiversity management. It involves analysing nuclear or mitochondrial DNA released by organisms into their environment. This DNA, shed through processes such as skin cells flaking off, or leaves and flowers falling, provides a non-invasive method to monitor and assess biodiversity. The advantage of eDNA lies in its ability to provide a comprehensive snapshot of the biodiversity within an ecosystem, without the need for direct sighting or capture of species. This makes it particularly effective for surveying aquatic environments, where traditional methods can be challenging and invasive.

By detecting DNA present in water samples, eDNA analysis can reveal the presence and, to some extent, the abundance of species, ranging from bacteria to large mammals. This data is pivotal for businesses in sectors like agriculture, construction, and manufacturing, where understanding and mitigating ecological impacts is vital.

eDNA provides businesses with accurate, timely, and cost-effective means to measure their impact on biodiversity. This data can inform strategic decisions, from supply chain management to new product development. By integrating eDNA analysis into their sustainability strategies, businesses can achieve a more precise understanding of their environmental impact, paving the way for more effective conservation efforts.

a black and white photo of a tree at night

While eDNA presents numerous advantages in biodiversity management, it also comes with its own set of challenges and limitations. One such challenge is the interpretation of eDNA data, which requires specialised expertise. The presence of a species’ DNA does not always indicate its current presence; it might be residual from a past inhabitant. Moreover, eDNA degrades over time and in various environmental conditions, which can affect the accuracy of the results.

There is also the matter of cost and accessibility. Analysis can be expensive, making it less viable for smaller businesses with limited resources. Lastly, technological limitations in detecting low-abundance species may result in incomplete biodiversity assessments. These challenges necessitate continuous advancements in eDNA technology and methodologies, as well as careful consideration in its application in biodiversity management.

The UK government’s 25 Year Environment Plan emphasises the role of businesses in protecting and enhancing biodiversity. As environmental regulations evolve and consumer awareness grows, businesses will find biodiversity management increasingly essential to their operational and reputational success.

Environmental DNA offers a window into the unseen biodiversity that supports our economy and ecosystem health. However, eDNA is not a standalone solution but a part of a larger, integrated approach to environmental management. As we embrace this technology, we must also foster a deeper understanding and commitment towards preserving biodiversity. The urgency for action is clear, and the potential for positive change is immense. By harnessing the power of eDNA, UK businesses are not just contributing to a sustainable future but are leading the way in creating a harmonious balance between economic development and environmental conservation.

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Images: Filipp Romanovski (top) / Braňo (bottom)



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