Environmental Statistics and Emerging Applications section meeting on eDNA: Challenges and Opportunities

The virtual meeting took place on Friday 16 October 2020. It was jointly organised by the Environmental Statistics Section and the Emerging Applications Section of the RSS.

The speakers were Kerry Walsh, Environment Agency, Naomi Ewald, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Francesco Ficetola, University of Milan, Doug Yu, University of East Anglia and Jim Griffin, University College London.

Kerry’s talk, titled 'Challenges and opportunities: A regulator’s perspective', gave a great introduction to the day. Kerry explained how the Environment Agency has learnt a lot about the potential eDNA-based methods could bring to better understanding and managing the environment through knowledge exchange initiatives such as the UK DNA Working Group and actively funding research. The power and sensitivity of eDNA compared to traditional methods to detect species in a non-invasive manner is clear. However, many challenges remain for the scientific community to address. Kerry’s presentation looked at the Environment Agency’s DNA journey and highlighted the challenges and priorities moving forward, in order to improve confidence in data and speed up implementation of these methods into operational practice.

Naomi, in her talk titled 'Analysis of eDNA data to inform conservation priorities: case studies of long term species monitoring and short term before-after surveys', described a long-term eDNA study of great crested newts. The study, funded by Defra, Natural England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, is one of the first national level species status assessments using eDNA. The study uses volunteers to collect eDNA samples to examine the year on year changes in great crested newt pond occupancy. The study has returned to the same ponds for the last six years. Although the occupancy status of individual ponds change year on year, the overall occupancy rate appears stable at the national level.

Francesco’s talk, titled 'Environmental DNA to track long-term changes of mountain ecosystem', discussed his research activities using environmental DNA extracted from soil and lake sediments to understand long-term changes of mountain ecosystems. He described the response of soil communities to climate change, community evolution in response of pastoral activities, and the impact of the spread of invasive species.

Doug’s presentation was titled 'Managing wildlife with eDNA data: salmon, leeches, insects, and forests' discussed the two major technical innovations that have occurred in ecology in recent years. The first is the generation of big community inventories via DNA sequencing. The other is the discovery of new statistical methods for analysing community data. Doug described progress on projects that apply the new statistics on the new data, using DNA collected from insects, leeches, and water samples (see https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.10.941336v2 and https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1755-0998.12987).

Finally, Jim, in his talk titled 'Modelling environmental DNA data; Bayesian variable selection accounting for false positive and false negative errors' presented a new Bayesian model and associated R-Shiny app for modelling single-species eDNA data. The model estimates the probabilities of false-positive and false-negative errors at both stages of eDNA surveys and the R-Shiny app implements efficient algorithms for performing Bayesian variable selection for all model parameters (see https://rss.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/rssc.12390?af=R).

Watch the meeting (part 1): 

Part 2:

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