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The DNA Will Reveal All That Is Underwater

Jennifer Wing
This cup of water holds a sample collected from Elliott Bay. Scientists can extract DNA from this small amount of water to find out what is living, seen and unseen, in the area from which it was collected.

It is now possible to go to a beach, scoop up a jar of water, and determine everything that’s living in the spot where that particular water sample was taken.

Usually, when scientists want to know which plants and animals live in an ocean or a lake, they have to don scuba gear, deploy nets and physically count things to create an accurate picture of that particular environment. This work can be expensive and time consuming. It also may no longer be necessary.

Every living thing sheds DNA. Scientists, such as Professor Ryan Kelly, an ecologist and lawyer at the University of Washington, are extracting DNA from the water and have found this method reveals volumes more information than traditional survey methods.

The one question Kelly gets asked a lot is how does he know he’s not seeing dinosaur DNA in the water?

“If you’re in Puget Sound, or anywhere else in today’s ocean, DNA degrades pretty fast. So, that’s useful [information] for us, because it means what we’re seeing is here and now.”

Gathering information this way will make it possible to get baseline information from bodies of water that may be at risk of suffering an oil spill disaster, such as the 2010 Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“When we have these big disasters, the first question everybody wants to know is, ‘Well, what is the effect of that?’  And the answer is, well, we didn’t have a lot of baseline information. It wasn’t like we were just out there counting things every day.

Kelly says it’s now possible for coastal communities to get an environmental snapshot of a baseline by analyzing the DNA in the water, so that if an event were to happen, researchers could quickly figure out what was being adversely affected or what was lost. 

This story originally aired on Dec. 10, 2016

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.