In the tranquil hours before dawn, the red lemurs at Zurich Zoo are awoken by a buzz of activity. A team of scientists assembles their equipment on the treetop walkways, focusing not on the animals or exotic plants but on the unseen threads of life connecting them. They are part of a ground-breaking initiative leveraging Drone Technology to gather environmental DNA (eDNA) for genetic analysis.
Professor Kristy Deiner of ETH Zurich is spearheading this cutting-edge intersection of genetics and robotics. Deiner's focus is on the pressing challenge of biodiversity loss.
She explains, “Biodiversity is being lost at a very high rate that we can't control, partly because we don't have the tools and data at the time we need them.”
To counter this, Deiner and her team are harnessing the power of eDNA, a collection of genetic material shed by organisms into their surroundings.
Armed with a portable mini-lab, the team can process eDNA from air, water, soil, or even a swab of a tree branch. This enables a broader understanding of an ecosystem's inhabitants than traditional fieldwork methods.
Moreover, the lab's on-site capability mitigates risks of external contamination. According to Deiner, this surge in innovation was propelled by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing demand for rapid testing.
Yet, an obstacle remains: efficient sample collection. Enter the robotics expertise of Stefano Mintchev, another professor at ETH Zurich. Two years ago, Deiner and Mintchev teamed up for a competition organized by XPRIZE, a non-profit championing technological innovation in biodiversity research. The challenge? Detect and identify as many species as quickly as possible.
Mintchev's contribution to the project is crucial, as he adapted drones to filter eDNA from the air and even pick up genetic material from foliage with a special probe. The drones' precise and non-invasive method of collection will enable researchers to reach areas too dense, remote, or hazardous for humans.
Elizabeth Clare, a York University biologist, sees this approach's immense potential. She reportedly states, “Drones allow access to areas that are too dense, too remote or too dangerous to be reached otherwise… It will also be very useful in understanding how genetic material moves and stratifies in the air.” However, she acknowledges the challenge of automating such technology for large-scale use.
Regardless of the outcome of the XPRIZE competition, the ETH Zurich team's innovative methods could prove valuable in diverse fields, from early pest detection in agriculture to the discovery of new species. Scientists estimate there are more than 8 million species on Earth, but this is based on extrapolation.
Deiner states with this new eDNA methodology, “We now have a method that will allow us to test whether this is true. It's a new phase of exploring our world.”
As we stand on the brink of a new era in biodiversity research, it's evident that the possibilities are as vast as the biodiversity they aim to uncover. In the words of Professor Deiner, “Now, we have a new kind of ship to travel on.”
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