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Environmental DNA tech makes reviews faster, cheaper

Environmental DNA (eDNA) can detect invasive species, identify mislabeled seafood and monitor whether offshore wind farms are affecting sea creatures. Although eDNA technologies are scientifically sound, many government agencies have been slow to adopt them, said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

In a commentary published Saturday by the Ecological Society of America, “Policy action needed to unlock eDNA potential,” Lodge advocates for U.S. and international government agencies to adopt eDNA in regulatory decision-making – a move that would make pre-development environmental reviews faster and more accurate while protecting people and natural resources. 

“It’s often the case that scientists invent new technologies or practices that can help prevent the next pandemic or protect wildlife and ecosystems, but those discoveries don’t automatically make their way into practice,” Lodge said. “The mission of Cornell Atkinson is to drive Cornell’s research into action to protect people and the planet. To do that, we need to foster relationships with government agencies, corporations, and non-government organizations to move discoveries into practice more quickly.”

Environmental DNA was first discovered in 2008 when French scientists used DNA markers to find American bullfrogs in the water of French ponds. Shortly after, Lodge and his colleagues used the technique to document that invasive carp species were much more prevalent in waters connected to the  Great Lakes than had previously been known. 

Although eDNA methods can be used to measure biodiversity in air and soil, the largest benefits so far have been seen in the water, in part, because it’s so difficult and expensive to sample underwater, he said. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed using eDNA to detect harmful marine species, identify mislabeled seafood and manage marine fisheries, among other things. 

“Much of the technological innovation in eDNA has been driven by scientists looking for invasive species, because only if you find it early can you have much hope of eradicating it – With traditional tools of catching fish and other organisms, you have no chance of catching one until they’re really abundant,” Lodge said.  

Lodge argues that if more federal agencies adopted eDNA, and made it clear that such technology should be used in mandatory environmental reviews before development projects, it would create a “virtuous cycle” of innovation that would save developers time and money while accelerating energy transitions needed in the face of climate change. It would also fuel the growth of private enterprises by scientific equipment companies and environmental consulting firms.  He cited a similar cycle that has occurred when governments mandated that carmakers achieve higher gas mileage standards or now as governments require the transition to electric vehicles: policy drives scientific innovation, which ultimately drives economic growth, and benefits consumers and the environment. 

“Technology development often happens much more rapidly than government policies can change, and there are lots of understandable reasons for that,” Lodge said. “But it’s often the case that a nudge is needed to get technology into the right hands where it can help make a difference.” 

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.  

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