Phase 1 of GEANS completed: highlights of achievements
Industrial activities in the North Sea are growing rapidly, potentially affecting ecosystem health. To conserve and manage the ecosystem health of the North Sea, proper management measures need to be taken, which depend on fast and accurate monitoring. DNA-based methods can provide a cost-effective, early-warning and accurate monitoring tool. However, several obstacles impede effective implementation and application of DNA-based monitoring (metabarcoding) in a standard, harmonized way within the North Sea Region. GEANS partners are working together, in close collaboration with stakeholders, to overcome these obstacles by: (1) implementing an open, shared, reliable DNA sequence reference library, (2) producing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and (3) executing pilot studies to demonstrate the proof-of-concept for environmental monitoring. In the first phase of the project, we made an inventory of key North Sea species of policy relevance, known to be non-indigenous (NIS) or abundant within the different Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Based on this inventory, a gap analysis is performed to identify species that are currently lacking a reliable DNA barcode. Collecting these missing species is a first priority, followed by vouchering and barcoding them in a standard way, to create a reliable DNA sequence reference library.
Secondly, we have compiled a clear overview of the methods that are currently used in bulk metabarcoding approaches. The overview is twofold: 1) the methods used by the nine GEANS partner institutes, based on a questionnaire, and 2) the methods employed by the wider scientific community, based on a comprehensive literature study (>60 peer-reviewed papers). From this overview, we created a list of generic recommendations for a harmonization of the SOPs, concerning the use of genetic tools in ecosystem health monitoring. In a second phase, the generic recommendations will be further fine-tuned, by applying the SOPs in different user-cases throughout the GEANS pilot studies.
Currently, two pilot studies have already been started with the consent (and financial) input of national and regional authorities, as important stakeholders of the project. The first pilot is on hard bottom monitoring, where ARMS (Artificial Reef Monitoring Structures) have been deployed as a standard sampling technique for the assessment of Good Environmental Status of hard bottom habitats as required by the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), concerning measures on benthic biodiversity and non-indigenous (NIS) species. Up till now, 12 ARMS have been installed, ranging from Northern Norway all the way south to Belgium. The ARMS samples will be genetically analyzed, following a standard protocol. The second pilot is on soft bottom monitoring where different subcases have been identified in relation to monitoring for the European MSFD, environmental impact assessments (EIAs), and long-term ecological research (LTER). Over a 100 of sea bottom sediment samples have been taken during the summer of 2019 within the EEZs of Denmark, Germany and Belgium. These are currently being analyzed both using DNA metabarcoding protocols, and for comparison also by means of traditional morphological (microscopic) identifications. This comparison will deliver proof-of-concept of the fast and cost-effective metabarcoding approach, showing complementarity and continuity with traditional methods.