Phase 2 of GEANS completed: highlights of main achievements
With increased exploitation of the North Sea, the need for efficient monitoring for sustainable management of the marine ecosystem is high. DNA-based methods can provide a cost-effective, early-warning and accurate monitoring tool for biodiversity. However, their implementation and application on a wider scale, more specifically the North Sea, is hampered by the lack of a standard, harmonised protocol between laboratories and regions. GEANS partners are working together, in close collaboration with stakeholders, 1) to create an open, and reliable DNA sequence reference library, 2) to produce Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), 3) to execute pilot studies to demonstrate the proof-of-concept for environmental monitoring, and 4) to develop a management decision support framework.
The DNA reference library for the North Sea region is essential to link DNA sequences to species names. At this point, DNA sequences of around 20% of the key North Sea species have been produced. Each newly added DNA sequence to the library meets high sequence quality standards, is linked to a vouchered specimen in a physical collection, has high quality digital pictures, and contains metadata on collection and identification. Several more species have been collected and are in the process of quality control to further populate the reference library.
A review paper was drafted to produce an overview of DNA based methods and protocols that are currently used for monitoring marine biodiversity, and to identify important knowledge gaps. Based on this review, a test was completed to investigate technical variation linked to DNA and PCR replicates in the wet lab protocol and a ring test was designed in which different GEANS partners will process the same set of samples with exactly the same and varying protocols. Both tests will greatly contribute to our understanding of the repeatability and robustness of the metabarcoding protocol.
We have initiated three pilot studies to investigate the applicability of DNA metabarcoding for environmental monitoring. The first pilot is on rocky bottom biodiversity monitoring, where ARMS (Artificial Reef Monitoring Structures) have been deployed ranging from Northern Norway all the way south to Belgium. During this period some of the previously deployed ARMS have been retrieved and genetically analysed. First results are expected in the next phase.
The second pilot focuses on sandy bottom monitoring in relation to monitoring for the European MSFD, environmental impact assessments, and long-term ecological research. Around 40 samples have already been analysed following the traditional microscopic method, and are currently being processed for genetic analysis. Time and costs are tracked to evaluate if the DNA approach can provide a cost-effective alternative to the traditional morphological identification.
The third pilot is built on an existing OSPAR/HELCOM protocol to monitor non-indigenous species (NIS) in harbours in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Norway, with a focus on zooplankton species. DNA-based techniques can increase detection power and at the same time increase time and cost efficiency, especially for the identification of planktonic stages of NIS.
In parallel to and together with the above activities, we disseminated the project to scientists, students and to commercial and policy stakeholders. This was done via scientific networking, teaching, one-on-one meetings with stakeholders that will potentially adopt the metabarcoding methodology, and by recording a video explaining the added value of the GEANS project.