Genetic tool could improve monitoring of marine protected areas

A UCLA researcher prepares to lower a specialized bottle into the ocean off of the coast of Santa Cruz Island to capture samples of eDNA. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

Researchers used to need to scuba dive to find out which fish live in any given area of the ocean. Now, a new UCLA study has found that environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be used to identify marine organisms living in a certain space.

Environmental DNA is the term for the DNA from cells that are constantly released by organisms into their environments — much like the hair and skin people normally shed in the shower. In the past decade eDNA technology has advanced rapidly, making it a competitive tool for assessing ecosystem biodiversity.

The findings, which were published in PLOS One, could have major implications for monitoring of marine protected areas, sections of ocean where fishing and other activities are prohibited to conserve marine life and habitat.

In 2012, California established 124 marine protected areas covering about 16% of state waters. Regular monitoring of those areas is critical for understanding if marine life is being protected successfully, said UCLA ecologist Paul Barber, the study’s senior author. Before eDNA, the only way to tell if marine protected areas were working was for scuba divers to count and identify every fish they saw, a method known as visual surveying.

“These surveys typically require experienced divers with specific training to spend hours and hours underwater,” said Barber, a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Now we can simply lower a bottle into the ocean from the side of a boat.”

The researchers compared which species were detected using eDNA and which were counted using visual surveying during summer 2017 at three sites inside and outside of the State Marine Reserve near Santa Cruz Island. Using eDNA, they identified nearly all of the same species as the visual surveys.

The only fish that did not show up using the technique were five species of rockfish — an issue the researchers said could be easily fixed by tweaking the genetic test to recognize that specific DNA when it appears in water samples.

A photo of a garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California's marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island.

A garibaldi swims through the kelp forests of California’s marine protected areas near Santa Cruz Island. (Photo Credit: Zachary Gold)

The eDNA also revealed an additional 30 species that had been seen in the same areas in previous years but that were not spotted during the 2017 visual surveys.

“We demonstrated that that we can use eDNA as a tool to monitor these ecosystems,” said Zachary Gold, the study’s lead author, a former UCLA doctoral student who is now a researcher at the University of Washington and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This is an opportunity going forward to expand the scope and scale of monitoring marine protected areas.”

Wider use of eDNA could help scientists overcome some of the challenges of visual surveying as a technique for monitoring marine species. For one, the new method could be far less expensive than the current one: Each eDNA sample costs around $50, while the National Park Service spends hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to survey 33 sites in the Channel Islands.

And in part because of those costs, visual surveys are conducted only once a year, which means seasonal variations in fish species have rarely been studied.

Another current challenge is that visual surveying is only performed in waters up to 10 meters (about 33 feet) deep, which means the technique cannot be used in more than 99% of California’s marine protected areas.

To analyze eDNA, researchers run the water they collect through a filter that captures the cells and DNA of marine organisms. Those filters are frozen on the boat and taken to a lab, where researchers extract DNA from the cells, sequence it and identify which species the DNA belongs to using a reference database.

For the PLOS One study, Gold used a reference database called the Anacapa Toolkit, which was developed previously by UCLA scientists.

The authors acknowledge that eDNA surveys won’t completely replace visual surveys, because the newer method can’t reveal the sex, size, abundance or behavior of the fish being studied — all of which are important elements of a complete assessment. “There will always be value to having eyes in the water,” Barber said.

But the simplicity of eDNA could create opportunities for community science — research in which nonscientist members of the public can participate. For example, Gold set up a program with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Heal the Bay that teaches volunteers how to collect water samples. The combination of eDNA tools and a wider network of people collecting samples could dramatically improve the monitoring of marine ecosystems.

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

From Startup to Social Change: UCLA’s Blackstone Launchpad Social Impact Fellows

Photos from top left: Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders, Diondraya Taylor of Mindsets & Milestones; Bottom from left: Michael Sesen-Perrilliat of TIED, Shae Koberle and her team member of Robinswing. (Photos courtesy of the depicted)

From top left: Shelby Kretz of Little Justice Leaders, Diondraya Taylor of Mindsets & Milestones; Bottom from left: Michael Sesen-Perrilliat of TIED, Shae Koberle and her team member of Robinswing. (Photos courtesy of Kretz, Taylor, Sesen-Perrilliat and Koberle)

Startup companies have introduced innovative technology, unique products and even new social networks. At UCLA, four startups are also addressing some of society’s most important challenges, from reaching swing voters to inspiring leadership skills in adolescent girls.

Last fall, Startup UCLA’s Blackstone Launchpad and Techstars network hosted the Social Impact Fellowship Program, focused on student-run companies with clear social impact missions. Out of 40 teams selected from across the country, four originated from UCLA – a reflection of Bruins’ dedication to community engagement and social change through entrepreneurship.

During the program, student fellows took part in coaching sessions with LaunchPad campus directors, received mentoring and learned about team management, digital marketing, fundraising, and more. Each fellow also received $5,000 in grant funding to advance their startup companies. Each of the four UCLA student-run companies was inspired by a variety of needs reflected in their communities.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Diondraya Taylor ’20, founder of Mindsets & Milestones, started her company as an undergraduate psychobiology major at UCLA and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in education. Mindset & Milestones creates educational materials to develop entrepreneurial skills in middle and high school girls. So far, Taylor’s company has produced a workbook, created an online course and more recently, launched an ambassador program for girls. Taylor was inspired to create Mindsets & Milestones to help tackle the confidence dips experienced by adolescent girls that can cause them to question their capabilities.

She recalled a particular conversation with a student in which they were discussing the organizational structure of the student’s team. In response, the student drew a circle, not a typical top-down organizational chart, explaining that she wanted everyone to work together. After some gentle probing by Taylor, the student admitted that she wasn’t sure if she was capable of leading people, despite her record demonstrating leadership potential.

“It was baffling to me. This student knew enough and had the vision, yet she couldn’t see herself as a leader,” Taylor said.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Shelby Kretz, who like Taylor is working on her Ph.D. in education, is the founder of Little Justice Leaders, a monthly subscription box aimed at elementary school children that creates opportunities for parents to talk their kids about topics such as social justice, environmental sustainability, immigration, racism and feminism. Each box contains an age-appropriate book on a single topic, a hands-on activity, lessons and worksheets, information cards and a nonprofit spotlight. Little Justice Leaders does more than serve children, it also engages parents and teachers, and facilitates learning in the community about social justice issues.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Shae Koberle is a third-year political science student who came up with her business idea last July, when she came across a document circulating on social media purporting to show the costs incurred by the LAPD to police demonstrations in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. During that time, she noted that while many individuals had the best intentions in mind, no real change was being made because the information tended to circulate in the same social circles and wasn’t being forwarded to the opposing side.

“To change local policy, you must engage the other side,” Koberle said. “You have to engage someone who doesn’t believe in defunding the police. That got me to think, ‘How can I reach those people’?”

To reach people across the opinion spectrum, Koberle founded Robinswing, an app that anonymously connects swing voters to canvassers without the hassle of soliciting. The app lets users anonymously learn about and follow local propositions and candidates, no strings attached. Koberle envisions Robinswing expanding to more conservative areas, citing the benefits of its anonymous user capabilities, which allow individuals who feel they might be persecuted due to their political stance or identity to become informed without fear of being harassed.

Launchpad Social Impact Fellow Michael-Sesen Perrilliat ’17 is a political science alumnus and founder of Tapped In: Equitable Development (TIED). TIED aims to create access and opportunities for people who are new to startups or need more resources to drive their startups to success. Founders connect with TIED through word of mouth or social media, and submit a form that analyzes the stage of their startup. TIED then assigns tasks to help the startup further develop their concept before connecting them with mentors and consultants who can support these entrepreneurs.

At UCLA, services like Startup UCLA and the venture consulting offered through Blackstone Launchpad allow students to develop their ideas, which increasingly include nonprofit ventures and social impact businesses. To meet the demands of UCLA’s growing community of social impact-oriented creators and entrepreneurs, Startup UCLA recently hired Rachael Parker-Chavez, an entrepreneur, lecturer and consultant with extensive experience with human-centered design and building up social impact businesses and nonprofits.

To learn more, visit https://startupucla.com.

This article was written by Shirley Li.