Sci­en­tists go big with first aquatic species map for US West

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

It sounds like a big fish story: a plan to cre­ate a bio­di­ver­sity map iden­ti­fy­ing thou­sands of aquatic species in ev­ery river and stream in the west­ern US But sci­en­tists say they’re steadily reel­ing in that whop­per and by next sum­mer will have the first Aquatic En­vi­ron­men­tal DNA At­las avail­able for the pub­lic.

Boise-based US For­est Ser­vice fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist Dan Isaak is lead­ing the project and says such a map could help with land man­age­ment de­ci­sions and de­cid­ing where to spend lim­ited money and re­sources. “It’s kind of the Holy Grail for bi­ol­o­gists to know what a true bio­di­ver­sity map looks like,” he said. “To have that for­mat­ted dig­i­tally so you can do lots of sci­ence with it will be trans­for­ma­tive in terms of the qual­ity of in­for­ma­tion we’ll have to con­serve species.”

Isaak said an­nual sur­veys could pro­vide snap­shots so sci­en­tists can see how bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tems change over time. Be­cause of the project’s im­mense scale, he said, sam­ple col­lect­ing likely will re­quire help from many en­ti­ties, in­clud­ing cit­i­zen sci­en­tists.

What the map will in­clude

The map even­tu­ally will in­clude ev­ery­thing from in­sects to salmon to river ot­ters. It’s pos­si­ble be­cause of a new tech­nol­ogy that can iden­tify stream in­hab­i­tants by an­a­lyz­ing wa­ter sam­ples con­tain­ing DNA. The tech­nol­ogy also can be used to iden­tify in­va­sive species.

That tech­nol­ogy is evolv­ing, said Michael Schwartz, the For­est Ser­vice’s di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Ge­nomics Cen­ter for Wildlife and Fish Con­ser­va­tion in Mis­soula, Mon­tana. Cur­rently, he said, sci­en­tists can de­tect only one species at a time in a stream sam­ple. He said the goal is to iden­tify mul­ti­ple species in a sin­gle test from one sam­ple. A rough es­ti­mate for when that might be pos­si­ble is about a year, he said.

The trove of in­for­ma­tion has the po­ten­tial to be so vast that ques­tions not presently imag­ined might arise. “Any time sci­ence un­der­takes large projects like this, the pay­outs can be in di­rec­tions you don’t ex­pect,” Schwartz said.

Ul­ti­mately, he said, the pub­licly avail­able in­for­ma­tion could be used by some­one with an iPad or other de­vice who could go to a sec­tion of river and see what species it con­tains.

The Aquatic En­vi­ron­men­tal DNA At­las for the west­ern US has its gen­e­sis in a smaller-scale project called the Bull Trout En­vi­ron­men­tal DNA At­las in­volv­ing five states - Idaho, Mon­tana, Ne­vada, Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton - where the fed­er­ally pro­tected fish is found. That ef­fort, Isaak said, has dis­cov­ered bull trout in ar­eas where they were thought not to ex­ist.

Isaak also has been work­ing on some­thing called the Cold Wa­ter Cli­mate Shield to iden­tify streams that could serve as a refuge for cold wa­ter species, such as bull trout, if global warm­ing con­tin­ues.

That map uses mil­lions of tem­per­a­ture record­ings go­ing back decades and has ex­panded to in­clude most of the west­ern US Stream tem­per­a­tures in lower el­e­va­tions have risen sev­eral de­grees over the past 30 years, Isaak said. The DNA At­las has been con­firm­ing the kind of species present as pre­dicted by the Cold Wa­ter Cli­mate Shield, Schwartz said.

What sci­en­tists ul­ti­mately hope to do is com­bine all the in­for­ma­tion from stream tem­per­a­tures, DNA At­las sam­pling, to­pog­ra­phy and weather pat­terns to get more in­sights into species dis­tri­bu­tion pat­terns and even how en­tire ecosys­tems func­tion. “The data sets can be big­ger be­cause com­put­ers are big­ger,” Isaak said. Even for Isaak, who is called a vi­sion­ary by his col­leagues, the leaps in tech­nol­ogy that make his ideas pos­si­ble can be mind-bog­gling.

“It’s just been an on­go­ing rev­e­la­tion,” he said, re­call­ing 15 years ago us­ing pen­cil and pa­per to make stream­side ob­ser­va­tions. “It still seems like magic to me that you can go take a wa­ter sam­ple and you have in­stru­ments pow­er­ful enough to dis­cern what species are present.” —AP

MIS­SOULA, Mon­tana: This April 17, 2014 photo pro­vided by the US For­est Ser­vice shows Michael K. Schwartz in the process of fil­ter­ing 5 liters of wa­ter to con­cen­trate DNA on a fil­ter to be an­a­lyzed at the Na­tional Ge­nomics Cen­ter for Wildlife and Fish Con­ser­va­tion, on Rat­tlesnake Creek. —AP

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