When DNA contributes to environmental progress

Nov. 13 2019 - 3 min

As seen in countless TV series and movies, DNA testing is often associated with crime-solving. However, the benefits of identifying the basic building blocks of life goes well beyond trying to nail or clear a suspect in a crime. DNA can be used to improve nearly all aspects of society environmental issues included.

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DNA analysis is a very powerful tool,” Aron Weir, Manager at Bureau Veritas Laboratories, says. Through BV Labs in Canada, Bureau Veritas offers a wide range of DNA-based services. From animal testing to forensics, food safety to genetics, DNA testing is used to obtain better knowledge and make more informed decisions.

"Are there any bacteria or contaminants present in the food we order in a restaurant or buy at the grocery store? At the beach or in a swimming pool, is the water we’re swimming in clean or is it to be avoided? DNA can be used to do a quick screen to detect if any problematic genetic signatures are present or not,” Weir explains.

DNA and eDNA, from agriculture to ecology

In agriculture, DNA testing is used by plant and animal breeders to investigate disease resistance or to obtain insights on how to breed for a desirable trait.

The DNA analysis, when applied to environmental issues, can be even more powerful. At first, the link between DNA and ecology is not obvious, yet it appears that DNA can play an important role in preserving biodiversity and fighting the effects of climate change.

The so-called “environmental DNA”, or “eDNA”, refers to a relatively new set of techniques, developed since 2008, that are used to detect living species in a specific natural environment. Genetic material is released by organisms into their environment, such as dead skin, plant cells, feces, or body fluids, and these can be collected through water, sediment, or soil sampling. For Weir, “the technique is poised to revolutionize the way ecological and environmental assessments are conducted.”

Enabling the detection of a species without the need for directly observing or capturing the organism being studied presents many benefits to scientists. “If we can easily see or photograph a species, no problem, no need for eDNA. But when you talk about species that are declining, close to extinction—they are very rare. If we want to preserve them, we need to know that they are here and act accordingly to protect them. Now the biologist can just go to one environment, take one liter of water, and analyze it for eDNA.”

Bureau Veritas, which became the first accredited Canadian laboratory for eDNA testing in June 2019, has been involved in several DNA-based ecological surveys as an analytical service provider. One of them involves coastal tailed frogs, a species at risk in British Columbia, Canada, and considered an “indicator species”. If the environment isn't healthy, for example if the water becomes contaminated from mining activities or pollution or settlements, very sensitive amphibian species often die out first.

“The problem is that these frogs live in specific habitats, they are hard to find, they don't vocalize or make any sound, they have a long life cycle and lay their eggs discretely under rocks. So they are very hard for biologists to listen to, to see or to find,” Weir explains.. By simply analyzing water samples for eDNA, the study was able to identify streams where the coastal tail frog lives. “Coastal tailed frogs were found in more regions than conventional ecological surveys alone and mapping themhelps the government and the people in charge of protecting the environment identify which habitats need to be protected to preserve this species,” he recalls.

DNA: a positive impact on our lives

And there is more to come. The potential of DNA appeals to individuals who desire a deeper understanding of themselves and their heritage, and has encouraged corporations to offer tailor-made services never before seen.

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing, although still forbidden in some countries (France, for one), has become extremely popular. Some companies boast more than 10 million customers each and have attracted investments amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. DNA travel (also called “ancestry trips” or “genealogy tours”) has become a trend: based on their DNA testing results, people go to visit the distant places where their ancestors used to live or journeyed from.

Undoubtedly, DNA will heavily impact health and medicine. “There will be a time in the future when we will get custom medicine,” Weir predicts. “When you take a drug today, the list of possible side effects can be very long – headaches, stomach pain, fatigue... With the advance of genetic research, maybe in 10 or 20 years from now, the medical system will routinely incorporate DNA tests, and the doctor will know your likely response to medicine, how effective it is for you, and what the side effects will be. This will improve the quality of life for humans.”

The more distant future could bring even more personalization. “At one point, we could very well say goodbye to our current passport, issued by a government with our photograph on it. In the future, we could have DNA-passports,” Weir asserts, adding that “the true task will be to assess what policies should be allowed, and what truly benefits society.”

For now, agriculture, ecology, health, safety, and crime-solving are all benefiting from progress made in DNA testing, inducing a positive impact on our lives and the planet alike.