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Using environmental DNA (eDNA) to explore biogeographic patterns in soil biodiversity

Understanding how and why biodiversity is distributed across the landscape is among the most stimulating scientific questions investigated by our scientists.

Are there specific environmental attributes favouring some species but not others?
How do long-term processes impact on speciation and community assembly?
Is anthropogenic disturbance likely to alter the competitive landscape?

Until recently we have explored these questions using traditional analytical approaches ranging from taxonomic surveys to population genetics. A burgeoning suite of whole-genome molecular techniques has changed the landscape of biodiversity research, unlocking research opportunities that only a few years ago would fit only a ’wildest dreams’ scenario. The latest of these involves the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) technology to explore biogeographic patterns across eastern Australian rainforests.  

This collaboration with the University of Grenoble (France) uses an ‘in-the-field’ approach to isolate and analyse eDNA directly from soil samples using simple and transportable technology. Only 15 grams of soil are needed to obtain extracellular DNA from most of the organisms living in the area (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, archaea). The target study area encompasses rainforests from Wollongong to Cape York, a latitudinal transect not easily replicable anywhere else in the world. We are asking a question that had never been asked before in such a scale: are continent-wide biogeographic patterns similar across all living organisms?

Current research

We are finalizing the analyses of this first continental rainforest soil biogeographic study, and preparing a series of publications. Much to our surprise, we found that similar biogeographic patterns are maintained across all taxonomic groups within the soil! In the future we will look into expanding this type of biodiversity assessment within the Restore & Renew project.