GEANS project completed – highlights of main achievements

29 November 2023 - Published by Nele Jacobs
A DNA sequence reference library for North Sea species, execution of several pilot each with a summarising pilot report, standardised protocols and a decision support tool: read more about the main GEANS achievements.

With increased exploitation of the North Sea, sustainable management of the marine ecosystem is more important than ever, increasing the need for efficient monitoring. DNA-based methods can provide a cost-effective, early warning, and accurate alternative to traditional biodiversity monitoring. Several obstacles, however, impede effective implementation and application of DNA-based monitoring (metabarcoding) in a standard, harmonized way on a wider North Sea scale.

GEANS partners have been working together, in close collaboration with stakeholders, striving towards implementation of DNA-based methods in environmental monitoring programmes. To this end, several pilot studies have been conducted as a proof-of-concept and different tools and products have been developed to help increasing implementation.

GEANS produced a publicly accessible, centralised sequence reference library covering 712 species of the North Sea. It is the first well-curated DNA library covering such a wide range of North Sea macrobenthos species. What makes it unique is that sequences are validated across countries and that they are backed up by an actual specimen. Linking DNA sequences and existing taxonomy (species names) is one of the strengths of GEANS, as it is important that data and results from traditional monitoring surveys can still be used after implementation of DNA-based methods.

Four different broad pilots (hard-bottom, soft-bottom, Non-Indigenous Species (NIS) and eDNA) have been performed in close collaboration with national or regional stakeholders and/or in alignment with existing environmental monitoring and wider networks. Overall, the different pilot studies proved consistent in species detection and identifying ecological species patterns. The DNA-based methods were on average also 66% faster and 40% cheaper than the traditional ones. Moreover, often more species were detected and often accuracy of detection increased. Each pilot has been wrapped up in a pilot report providing clear recommendations and conclusions. Generally, DNA-based methods can complement the traditional methods to improve ecosystem health assessment or even replace them, depending on the monitoring question at hand. The lessons-learned and recommendations have been summarized in an online interactive decision support tool aiming to facilitate end-users/stakeholders in finding the best suited DNA-based methodology for their specific monitoring goal.

Application of the DNA-based methods in the pilots, together with performing a transnational ring test, helped to further optimise the tools and resulted in validated tools and in the publication of a number of, freely available, protocols. Furthermore, four methodological peer-reviewed papers have been published, supporting these protocols. These show that both reproducible and robust assessments of biodiversity are delivered using our protocol, which is pivotal for harmonisation and wide applicability at regional level.

The different activities (pilots, protocols, reference library), always in close collaboration with stakeholders, resulted in implementation of DNA-based methods by eight public authorities for certain aspects of ecosystem health assessment, which will eventually lead to improved transnational environmental health assessment.

Furthermore, to promote the legacy of the project, we launched an output website including, among others, the interactive decision support tree, a link to the sequence reference library, all produced reports and publications and our protocols.