Exploring airborne eDNA for monitoring of terrestrial biodiversity using public and private air sampling networks

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Joanne Littlefair

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

David Murrell

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Project Description:

Terrestrial biodiversity provides huge benefits to humanity, from food production and pollination, to nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration. While ecosystems have suffered from some devasting biodiversity losses, there is increasing political will to monitor and restore nature. However, current terrestrial biomonitoring fails to capture changes in species richness at sufficient taxonomic resolution, temporal regularity and spatial scale, and focuses primarily on charismatic animals. Moreover, an understanding of ecosystem health, resilience and interactions are not included in routine biomonitoring and we do not have a sense of how these properties dynamically change in response to restoration efforts.
We are exploring how to accelerate the development of biomonitoring using airborne environmental DNA (eDNA) technology. This is a novel application of eDNA techniques to terrestrial animals and plants, which has the potential to identify a broad suite of taxa, with increased spatial resolution arising from the broad distribution from public and private air quality samplers. This project will:
• Explore the diversity of taxa that can be detected using eDNA captured from the air using public and private air sampling instruments, and for selected taxa, map these onto data of species distributions collected with conventional techniques, identifying species of conservation concern and invasive species.
• Quantify the impacts of human activity levels on local species turnover by examining time series of airborne eDNA filters collected over the “Anthropause” driven by the implementation of COVID-19 lockdowns, during which human activity levels reduced.
• Combine trait-based network approaches with airborne eDNA to explore the creation of ecological networks and assess ecosystem health using this new data source.
The PhD student will be trained in state-of-the-art molecular biodiversity analysis and will benefit from contact with non-academic collaborative partners.

Policy Impact of Research:

The novel source of terrestrial biomonitoring data will be relevant to government agencies such as Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England, e.g. those involved in the Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment Programme. Wildlife NGOs will benefit from the development of airborne eDNA technology in extending the monitoring of protected populations.

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