Meet the scientist sampling the Arctic’s environmental DNA

Sampling DNA directly from Arctic waters can give researchers a clearer picture of marine ecosystems.

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As the Arctic melts and reveals swathes of ocean previously impenetrable to scientific investigation, the race is on to better document the rich ecosystems lying in the newly ice-free ocean.

Scientists like Kirstin Thompson are among those using new technologies that can identify the species currently roaming the northern waters. They hope that doing so will help build a case to designate large parts of the Arctic Ocean as marine protected zones, before increased human activity further destabilizes this rapidly changing part of the world.

Thompson, a lecturer in Ecology at the University of Exeter in the U.K., is using eDNA sampling (environmental DNA), to detect whether an animal species has visited certain waters by the DNA it’s left behind.

“Whatever has passed though the water and left a trail of cells we may be able to detect by just filtering the water and trapping those cells on a specialized filter and preserving that DNA and taking it back to the lab,” she said.

“It gives us a sort of snapshot of what vertebrate communities might exist here.”

Along with making the case for protecting the oceans, building up a picture of what lives in these waters now will also give scientists a reference point for how global warming has affected species’ distributions as the seas warm.

Many scientists believe the Arctic could be completely free of sea ice in the summer within decades. This would make it a highly attractive route for transcontinental shipping from Asia to the U.S. and Europe, shaving thousands of miles off routes through the Suez and Panama canals.

Increased shipping brings with it a risk of accidents and oil spills, along with the possibility that parts of the ocean may be mined for minerals or drilled for hydrocarbons.

Currently there are few environmental protection areas covering the international waters around the North Pole, including where Thompson was doing her sampling.

Environmentalists hope that evidence of a teeming ecosystem in the Arctic will help bolster the case for halting the encroachment of human activity.

Production by Natalie Thomas and Matt Stock.