The California Current extends from Canada’s Vancouver Island to the middle of the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, nearly 2,000 miles. From the North Pacific Ocean to the west coast of North America, it brings cold water. It is home to abundant and numerous species because of the upwelling of deep nutrient-rich waters.
A large marine ecosystem is supported by the current home to species ranging from orcas to abalone. It is the basis for more than 675,000 jobs and $56 billion in annual economic output. Paul Barber, UCLA ecologist and his team and three other institutions have made a DNA barcodes library that in the California Current identify 605 species. This includes 275 that had not previously been catalogued. 70% of the animals that live there are covered by the data, including 99.9% of monitored species important to conservation and fisheries.
The barcodes are sequences of letters that spell out the special order of amino acids that identify each species’ DNA. The research is published in Molecular Ecology Resources on July 9. The new database will enable wildlife managers, fisheries, conservationists, and researchers to understand what is happening to ecosystems and species. This library can be used to identify hotspots where certain species need to be better protected.
On the use of environmental eDNA or DNA, the resource is based. Environmental DNA is the genetic material shed by organisms into their environment. Using fast-improving and emerging methods, a sample of ocean water can be collected by the researchers and by the DNA species leave behind can find out what species are around. According to Barber, the study’s senior author, to do so, they need to be able to match that DNA to already-identified samples. “It is like a crime scene where there is lots of forensic evidence, like blood or hair,” he said. “It isn’t useful unless you have a potential match in a database.”
To date, species have been detected manually; scuba divers swim through the waters to count animals by hand, larvae and fish eggs are counted under a microscope. The researchers must identify species by their physical characteristics. Research can be limited by the labour-intensive process and delay action needed to protect marine fisheries and ecosystems. According to Zack Gold, a former UCLA doctoral student with a robust genetic library and eDNA, species can be identified by researchers with scoops of water that can be analyzed in a couple of weeks.