A bucket of water can reveal climate change impacts on marine life in the Arctic

January 12, 2021

Climate changes prompt many important questions. Not least how it affects animals and plants: Do they adapts, gradually migrate to different areas or become extinct? And what is the role played by human activities? This applies not least to Greenland and the rest of the Artic, which are expected to see the greatest effects of climate changes.

'We know surprisingly little about marine species and ecosystems in the Arctic, as it is often costly and difficult to do fieldwork and monitor the biodiversity in this area', says Associate Professor of marine mammals and instigator of the study Morten Tange Olsen from the GLOBE Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen.

To address these questions, researchers from the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources collected water samples in West Greenland with the help of local hunters and fishermen. Their method is simple: Go out to sea in a small boat and collect water in bottles. The content, however, is far more complex. The bottles with seawater contain so-called environmental DNA, which can provide insight into how climate changes and human activities impact the biodiversity. The researchers have chosen to focus on the bowhead whale, which constitutes a key species in the Arctic ecosystem and therefore is a good indicator of changes in water temperatures and sea ice cover.

'The water samples contain enough DNA from bowhead whales to determine their presence, genetic diversity, the composition of the population and patterns of migration. You can actually monitor the marine biodiversity of the Arctic simply by going out in a small boat and collecting water in bottles, which is subsequently analysed in the DNA laboratory. This way, we are able to keep an eye on how humans and climate changes impact the bowhead whale and other marine life in the Arctic', says Morten Tange Olsen.

Footprint in a bottle

Together with local hunters and fishermen in Qeqertarsuaq (Godhavn), the researchers collected more than 100 one-litre water samples from Disko Bay in West Greenland in May 2017 and 2018. In May, the sea ice has just broken up and bowhead whales visit the area to forage. The samples were collected from small boats along transects and specifically in the 'footprint' of bowhead whales - the small ripples on the water surface created when the whales come up to breathe and dive again.

'There is a lot more bowhead whale DNA in such a footprint than in a random water sample collected at the same time in the same area. You can find bowhead whale DNA in a footprint at least 10 minutes after the whale dove', says Natasja Lykke Corfixen, who helped initiate the study as part of her master's thesis at the Faculty of Science at the University of Copenhagen and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

By optimising the DNA methods in the laboratory, the researchers hope to be able to sequence the whale's entire genome based on water samples. 'So far we have managed to sequence mitochondrial genomes from the water samples, and we are currently testing various methods for capturing the whale's entire genome, as well as the genomes of the algae and crustaceans that form part of their food chain', says PhD Student at the GLOBE Institute Dóra Székely.

Health and genetics based on a water sample

The researchers hope that by optimising DNA extraction and sequencing protocols, and learning more about the connection between genes, behaviour and health, they will eventually be able to use the method to monitor the health status of the bowhead whale and many other animals.

'The field of Environmental DNA is seeing rapid development and is increasingly used for biodiversity monitoring in lakes, rivers, wetlands and, to some extent, the sea. We have shown that the method is also useful in the Arctic, and that it can be used to monitor not just the presence of a species, but also its diversity and patterns of movement. By further developing this simple method we are able to significantly increase our knowledge of marine biodiversity, and hopefully the impact of both climate changes and human activities', says Morten Tange Olsen.

University of Copenhagen - The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.