Biodiversity, Quick and Dirty

Researchers find that sampling DNA from the soil can be an effective way to determine how many individuals of a variety of species inhabit a particular area.

Bob Grant
Bob Grant

Bob Grant is Editor in Chief of The Scientist, where he started in 2007 as a Staff Writer.

View full profile.


Learn about our editorial policies.

Sep 26, 2011

WIKIMEDIA, ALVESGASPAR

Assessing the biodiversity of an area is one of those dirty jobs that somebody's gotta do. But researchers in Denmark and Australia have devised a way to shortcut the classical technique of calculating biodiversity, which involves time and labor intensive methods of trapping and tagging various animals in a given ecosystem. A faithful representation of which species and how many individuals of each inhabit a particular area can instead by gleaned from DNA samples lurking in the soil, they report in a paper published this month in Molecular Ecology.

"This is the first time anyone has shown that 'dirt' DNA not only reflects what species live in an area, but how many [individuals] there are," evolutionary biologist and study coauthor Eske Willerslev told Nature. Willerslev and his colleagues ran mitochondrial DNA samples from soil collected in Danish safari parks and zoos through high-throughput sequencers, scanning for...

There are several caveats to using the method, however. For example, soil leeching can be a problem, and animal behavior could influence how much of a particular species' DNA ends up in the soil. Still, the quick and dirty estimator of the biodiversity can potentially save ecologists time and money by freeing them from traditional capture and tag methods.

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?