Archive for the ‘Biodiversity’ Category

Open Letter on the crucial role of fungi in preserving and enhancing biodiversity

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Published on14.12.2022



When we think of forests we usually think of trees, plants and animals. But forests could not exist without fungi, which lie at the base of the biodiversity webs that support much of life on Earth.

Most fungi live as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium which can make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Globally, the total length of fungal mycelium in the top 10cm of soil is more than 450 quadrillion km: about half the width of our galaxy. These networks comprise an ancient life-support system that easily qualifies as one of the wonders of the living world. Despite that, fungi represent a meagre 0.2% of our global conservation priorities.  

Fungi are largely invisible ecosystem engineers that have shaped life on Earth for more than a billion years. In fact, around 500 million years ago, fungi facilitated the movement of aquatic plants onto land, fungal mycelium serving as plant root systems for tens of millions of years until plants could evolve their own. This association transformed the planet and its atmosphere – the evolution of plant-fungal partnerships coincided with a 90% reduction in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Today, most plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi – from the Greek words for fungus (mykes) and root (rhiza) – which weave themselves through roots, provide plants with crucial nutrients and defend them from disease.

Put simply, fungal networks embody the most basic principle of ecology: that symbiosis is fundamental to life on earth. Plants supply carbon to their fungal partners in exchange for nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus – much of the phosphorus that makes up the DNA in your own body will have passed through a mycorrhizal fungus. In their exchange, plants and fungi engage in sophisticated trading strategies. The influence of these quadrillions of microscopic trading decisions spills out over whole continents. Globally, at least 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide are allocated from plants to mycorrhizal networks each year.

A call to action

A paradigmatic but often forgotten example of the keystone role of fungi is in the world’s forests, which are among the most important biological systems on our planet. They are our largest terrestrial carbon sink and the main terrestrial source of precipitation and oxygen. They house much of the planet’s biodiversity, serving as irreplaceable libraries of different ways to rise to the challenge of living.

However, current biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable food strategies, including forest restoration efforts overlook fungi and focus overwhelmingly on plants (flora) and animals (fauna). We urgently need to add a third “F” – funga – to create holistic conservation strategies that simultaneously address the triple planetary challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and food security.  

Fungi must be incorporated into law-making and decision-making in international environmental treaties and frameworks, as well as national agricultural and environmental laws and policies, and local conservation and environmental initiatives. We invite the leaders meeting in COP 15 to start this process by adding fungi to the Post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Fungi have long sustained and enriched life on our planet. It’s time they receive the attention they deserve.

This open letter was written by:

Marc Palahí, Director European Forest Institute
Toby Kiers, Director Society for the Protection of Underground Networks
Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life
Giuliana Furci – Executive director, Fungi Foundation & co-chair IUCN SSC Fungal Conservation Committee
Robert Nasi, Chief Executive Officer, CIFOR-ICRAF
César Rodríguez-Garavito, Professor of Clinical Law and Director, Earth Rights Advocacy Clinic, New York University School of Law

Photo: Carolina Magnasco/Fungi Foundation


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Video: UNESCO examines the environmental and biodiversity impacts of gene-edited plants and animals

UNESCO | November 8, 2022

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Credit: UNESCO
Credit: UNESCO

Genome editing is a powerful tool. It allows us to modify genes not only to treat human diseases but also to change characteristics of animals and plants within a very short period of time at a much larger scale than any other methods that humans had ever used in the past. A technique called “gene drive” that uses genome editing to spread certain genes in the entire population of a target species could eradicate diseases caused by insects such as malaria and other vector borne diseases. Plants and animals could be more resistant to diseases and grow quicker. But is it safe? What would be the impact on the environment and biodiversity?

The third of the series of Ethics of Genome Editing “3. Impact of Genome editing on plants, animals and environment” is now available in English, French, Japanese, Spanish and other languages subtitles.

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Sky Islands: Isolated Mountaintops Teem With Unique Insect Communities


For a study of the communities of parasitic wasps on mountains in the Interior Highlands of Arkansas, one of the sites chosen was Mount Magazine State Park in Arkansas, which rises 709 meters (2,326 feet) above sea level. With cooler, wetter climates than lowlands nearby, such each feature their own communities of parasitic wasps—and likely other insects—that differ from the insect fauna found on other mountains and in the surrounding valleys, according to a new study published in August in Environmental Entomology. (Photo courtesy of Allison Monroe)

By Ed Ricciuti

Ed Ricciuti

It’s not quite Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Lost World of dinosaurs, but the insect life found by scientists atop so-called “sky islands” in Arkansas ranks as truly unique.

“Sky island” is a term popularized in the 1960s to describe isolated mountains with environments markedly different than that of surrounding lowlands. Conan-Doyle prefigured such environments in his story about an expedition that explored a plateau rising above jungle, where prehistoric dinosaurs, reptiles and “ape men” had survived the ages.

Although not as dramatic as dinosaurs, isolated endemic populations of animals of any size excite scientists. According to a study published in August in Environmental Entomology, such distinct assemblages of insects in the order Hymenoptera (sawflies, bees, wasps, and ants) live atop uplands in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois called the Interior Highlands.

The study, by student researchers at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, focused on parasitic wasps inhabiting three mountains, but the results can be extrapolated to other sky islands in the region and their insects in general, the researchers say.

“Given that each sky island in our study showed unique community characteristics of Hymenoptera, it is reasonable to predict that other insects follow the same pattern,” the authors write. Mountains studied were Petit Jean Mountain at 253 meters (830 feet) in elevation, Mount Magazine at 709 meters (2,326 feet) and Rich Mountain at 747 meters (2,451 feet).

field site

Parasitic Hymenoptera are a multitudinous group, with 50,000 or so identified species and perhaps millions in all. Typically, they parasitize other insects by laying their eggs in host eggs, larvae, or pupae. They are of immense ecological importance because they are fine-tuned to specific hosts, including many pest species, which they can regulate, like natural pest control managers. “We chose parasitic Hymenoptera as our focal group because they are considered bioindicators of broader diversity patterns, especially those of other insects,” the authors write.

The Interior Highlands, centered in Missouri and Arkansas and including the Ouachita Mountains and Ozark Plateau, were chosen as a study site because they have been above sea level for 320 million years, likely serving as a refuge for ecological communities avoiding the impact of the Pleistocene glaciers. The region is the only major mountainous area between the Appalachians and the Rockies, covering much more area than the Black Hills of South Dakota. Typical of the Interior Highlands, Mount Magazine is 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than normal temperatures in the landscape down below and wet, with an annual rainfall of 54 inches. Crowned with upland hardwood and upland pine-hardwood forests, these mountains rise from grasslands, with vegetation ranging from tallgrass prairie to lowland pine-hardwood and bottomland hardwood forests.

Much of the area where the research was conducted lies in state and federal lands. Sweating in the hot summer sun, the research team trekked along hiking trails from grasslands into woodlands. They set up traps, then collected insects from them.

“Though evidence is accumulating that the Interior Highlands host unique species relative to other areas of the North American continent, there is less known about how mountaintops within the region compare in terms of biodiversity,” the researchers write. “We used parasitic Hymenoptera to explore biodiversity patterns across high elevation areas in Arkansas to determine whether these patterns are similar to those exhibited by other sky island regions.”

malaise trap
research team

Each mountaintop had its distinct community of parasitoid species, indicating that the same applies to Hymenoptera in general and even to other groups of insects. On a given mountaintop, communities differed stratigraphically, with those on the ground distinct from those in the forest canopy.

The results of the study suggest the need for additional research. “Our study suggests that these highland areas are important regions of North American biodiversity and that they should be evaluated individually for conservation efforts in order to preserve their distinctive community structure,” the authors write.

Elaborating on the study, lead author Allison Monroe, says, “This study is important for a variety of reasons. Parasitic wasps are deeply important to our environment but are often overlooked if not deeply hated.”

Monroe, now a Ph.D. candidate at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, says, “Arkansas is an incredibly biodiverse state with high rates of agricultural production, yet little research exists on insect biodiversity trends and their applied impacts on diverse land management strategies within this system. We hope that this paper brings to light the extraordinary diversity housed in Arkansas, the importance of insect biodiversity more broadly, and the significance of parasites in our pursuits of nature conservation.”

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Biodiversity of Parasitic Hymenoptera Across Sky Islands of Arkansas, United States

Environmental Entomology

Ed Ricciuti is a journalist, author, and naturalist who has been writing for more than a half century. His latest book is called Bears in the Backyard: Big Animals, Sprawling Suburbs, and the New Urban Jungle (Countryman Press, June 2014). His assignments have taken him around the world. He specializes in nature, science, conservation issues, and law enforcement. A former curator at the New York Zoological Society, and now at the Wildlife Conservation Society, he may be the only man ever bitten by a coatimundi on Manhattan’s 57th Street.

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Disease-resistant GM cassava promises to be game-changer for Kenya


AUGUST 15, 2022


At the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) center in Mtwapa, Kenya, scientist Paul Kuria uproots two sets of cassava tubers exposed to the devastating cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

One of the plants is a conventional cassava variety that has no immunity to the disease. The second has been genetically modified (GM) to resist the disease. Kuria punctiliously slices each of the tubers open, and the difference between the two is stark — like night and day.

The conventional tuber looks emaciated and is punctured with brownish, unsavory spots dotting the entire circumference of its flesh. The GM tuber, on the other hand, is the picture of good health. Its skin is flawless and firm, and its flesh has an impeccable, white lustre.

CBSD is considered one of the world’s most dangerous plant diseases due to its significant impact on food and economic security. Cassava varieties that are resistant to the disease could considerably improve the crop’s ability to feed Africa while generating income for smallholder farmers.

In severe cases, the disease can lead to 100 percent yield loss. As noted by KALRO and its partners, cassava resistant to CBSD is in high demand by farmers where the crop is grown.

Meeting that demand has been an elusive target for plant breeders. But through modern biotechnology, a collaborative effort known as the VIRCA project has developed CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046. It has the potential to prevent 90 percent of crop damage, thus improving the yield and marketability of cassava roots.

“We used genetic engineering and produced an improved cassava,” Professor Douglas Miano, the lead scientist in the project, told journalists and farmers who toured the KALRO grounds in Mtwapa in early August.

“It’s the first GM cassava in the world, and Kenya is leading in this production,” Miano said.

The VIRCA (Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa) project was conceived in 2005 with the aim of solving the viral diseases that suppress cassava yields and reduce farmer incomes in East Africa. It brings together KALRO, the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre (DDPSC) in the United States.

“We have two main diseases affecting cassava production — CBSD and cassava mosaic disease,” Miano explained. “Cassava mosaic disease affects the leaves of the crop. The net effect is a reduction in the amount of cassava that is produced. CBSD, on the other hand, destroys the roots and affects the tuber.”

Scientists Paul Kuria displays GM disease-resistant cassava (left) vs cassava infected with CBSD. Photo: Joseph Maina

Dr. Catherine Taracha, a Kenyan who is on the project’s leadership team, said that plant viruses create a huge challenge for farmers.

“Cassava productivity is significantly hampered by viral diseases, and so we sought to develop a cassava line that would resist the viruses and thereby improve farmers’ livelihoods by boosting productivity and earnings from the crop,” Taracha said.

Because the line is yet to be approved for commercial release, the work is being carried out in regulated confined field trial conditions. If and when Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority approves line 4046 for the market, the new CBSD-resistant varieties would undergo normal government variety assessment and registration by regulators before being distributed to farmers.

The scientists further assure that CBSD-resistant cassava varieties are no different than their conventional equivalents — aside from their ability to resist CBSD.

“Due to the ability to resist CBSD, these varieties will be more productive with better quantity and quality of root yields,” Miano said.. “This will translate to greater demand and more profits for farmers.”

In addition, CBSD-resistant cassava line 4046 will produce disease-free planting material and thereby contribute to long-term sustainability of the cassava crop.

There will be no technology fee associated with line 4046, scientists say, implying that cassava stakes and cuttings will cost about the same as other highly valued cassava varieties.

Cuttings from CBSD-resistant cassava can be replanted in the same way farmers replant conventional cassava. They can also be grown with other crops because cultivation practices are the same as for conventional varieties.

The developers have further assured that CBSD-resistant cassava line is safe for the environment and biodiversity.

“We have developed the GM cassava up to the point where we have conducted all the safety studies and demonstrated that it is safe as food, feed and to the environment,” Miano said.

The general public and key stakeholders have been involved in the project, and it is anticipated that farmers and communities will be involved in selecting the best CBSD-resistant cassava varieties for their needs.

Cassava roots and leaves are the nutritionally valuable parts of the plant. The tuber is rich in gluten-free carbohydrates while the leaves provide vitamins A and C, minerals and protein. In addition to its nourishing properties, stakeholders have also identified cassava’s potential to spur Kenya’s industrial growth.

“Cassava is an important food crop, but we can also use it to industrialize in Kenya,” Miano asserted. “However, we have not yet been able to achieve this as a country.”

Miano identified starch as a potential cassava product that the country can leverage to advance its industrial growth. It is also projected that the improved cassava can protect farmers from devastating losses of this important food crop and contribute to the creation of thousands of jobs along the value chain due to the crop’s use as animal feed.

The scientists note that modern biotechnology is by far the best option to incorporate CBSD resistance in cassava cultivars carrying farmer-preferred characteristics. Similar approaches have been used to confer resistance to plant viruses and have been authorized by regulatory bodies around the world, including virus-resistant pawpaw, squash and beans.

Image: Scientist Paul Kuria displays cassava infected with cassava brown streak disease (left) and a GM variety that resists the devastating disease. Photo: Joseph Maina


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Weevils in caves, fish, and an ant that ‘babysits’ caterpillars among 139 new species classified by CSIRO

ABC Science


By environment reporter Nick Kilvert

Posted Mon 8 Aug 2022 at 3:00pmMonday 8 Aug 2022 at 3:00pm, updated Mon 8 Aug 2022 at 4:34pmMonday 8 Aug 2022 at 4:34pm

A strange pink organism on a leaf.
A gall caused by a newly classified species of gall wasp called Antron lovellae.(Supplied: CSIRO/Ron Russo)

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The CSIRO has released details of more than 136 new species of animals and three plants identified in the past year.

The new species include four fish, 117 insects, 11 jumping spiders, three plants, a frog, a millipede, an earthworm, and a marine trematode — a parasitic flatworm. 

The trematode was found inside a fish.

Close up of sucker mouth.
The oral sucker of Enenterum petrae under microscope. Baby Petra doesn’t know how lucky she is.(Supplied: Daniel Huston/Zootaxa)

Now called Enenterum petrae, it was named after the baby daughter of its identifier, Petra.

David Yeates, director of the CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection, said choosing a favourite out of the newly identified species was a bit like being asked to “choose a favourite child”.

However, he said one of the most interesting is a species of ant — now known as Anonychomyrma inclinata — which “babysits” the caterpillars from one of Australia’s  rarest butterflies, the bulloak jewel butterfly.

An ant.
The newly named ant Anonychomyrma inclinata is the ‘obligate attendant’ for the rare and beautiful bulloak jewel butterfly Hypochrysops piceatus.(Supplied: CSIRO/Jon Lewis)

“The ants carry the little caterpillars out from under the bark of the bulloak tree to feed on the soft tips of the leaves or needles at night; they carry them out and then back,” Dr Yeates said.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, where the ants protect the caterpillars from other ants, and get something in return, he said.

The butterfly, the ant and the mistletoe

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An illustration of trees with birds, ants, butterflies and raindrops, and a hand holding a chainsaw in the foreground.

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“The ants feed on a sugary substance that the caterpillars produce from glands. The ants get this nice sugary secretion and the butterflies get protection.”

As well as it being a fascinating strategy, that knowledge helps to direct efforts to conserve the bulloak jewel butterfly.

“When we’re trying to manage that rare and beautiful butterfly, we know it only occurs where that ant occurs in that particular [species of] tree.”

A colourful butterfly.
The bulloak jewel butterfly has a symbiotic relationship with an ant that looks after its young.(Supplied: CSIRO/Michael Braby)

With only an estimated 25 per cent of Australian species having been formally identified, this work highlights the important role that the CSIRO’s National Research Collections perform, according to Dr Yeates.

Australian fauna — especially insects — is still poorly researched compared with fauna  in most other developed countries.

“That’s an important point for Australians to understand. Australia is still the land of discovery.

“We have a first world economy, good infrastructure, but we drive past new species all the time.

“For a biologist to come here from Europe or China for example, they think it’s the land of milk and honey, because there are so many new species for them to work on.”

A pink and yellow fish.
The purple-tip anthias is found in around 110 metres of water.(Supplied: CSIRO/Queensland Museum)

Other species in today’s haul include the purple-tip anthias, which has been found in waters between about 110 and 119 metres deep, off southeast Queensland.

Of the newly named fish species, three were types of anthias, and the fourth was a silverspot weedfish.

A mottled red fish.
The silverspot weedfish is found off southwest Western Australia in 55-100m depth.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Most new fish species that are being classified are small, non-commercially viable species that tend to live in deep water where they are rarely encountered.

While that appears to be the trend, Dr Yeates said a few years ago a large, deepwater cod species was discovered at a fish market.

A lineup of beetles.
Specimens of Undarobius howarthi and U. irvini, the two new species of weevils in the new genus Undarobius found in lava caves at Undara Volcanic National Park in north-eastern Queensland.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Of the newly discovered insects,  34 were beetles, including two new weevils found in the lava tubes at Undara Volcanic national park in Far North Queensland.

A weevil close up.
A new species of weevil discovered in the Undara lava tubes in Far North Queensland.(Supplied: CSIRO)

The two weevil species are the first cave-dwelling weevils to be described in Australia, according to the CSIRO.

The weevils have long, arachnid-like legs, are blind, and appear to have adapted to life in the darkness.

It’s possible that the two species, called Undarobius howarthi and U. irvini are relics from a period when the region was covered in rainforest.

A person stands in a cave with a torch.
Entomologists visiting the Bayliss Cave, a lava cave in Undara Volcanic National Park, to search for beetles.  (Supplied: CSIRO)

Not all the insects identified by CSIRO and their partners were from Australia; 39 were species of gall wasps from the Americas.

Gall wasps typically cause grotesque growths to form on plants, and can create problems if they become invasive pests, such as the native citrus gall wasp, which has spread across Australia.

How do scientists know if it is a new species?

One of the many challenges in identifying new species, is working out whether you in fact have a new animal, or just a funny looking, but known one.

Animals and plants can develop different physical properties, known as phenotypic expression, depending on pressures in their particular environment.

The Tasmanian blue gum for example, can reach 100 metres in height in Tasmania’s forests, but stunted versions of the same species just a few metres tall are found on the coast.

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Other species may change markedly depending on gender, and what stage of life they are at.

Which is why it’s important to have large collections such as the Australian National Research Collection.

Having lots of species in one place allows scientists to compare features to properly distinguish between their characteristics.

Even then, very specific expertise is required to work out where the animal or plants sits in its phylogenetic tree.

“What happens is that specimens that belong to new species accumulate in collections, and it’s a fair bit of effort to figure out if they’re new or not,” Dr Yeates said.

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“It can take quite a bit of time and effort, including looking at their genes and genomes to determine if they really are different.”

It’s likely that many species will become extinct in Australia, or have already become extinct, before we’ve had a chance to identify them.

Figuring out what’s what, means we can better understand where conservation efforts need to be targeted, according to Dr Yeates.

“We can start to get information on how to manage it, whether it’s declining, and what factors might impact its survival.”

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African scientists launch biodiversity genomics revolution

Busani Bafana | Cornell Alliance for Science | June 17, 2022

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Sequencing a continent as large and biodiverse as Africa is a unique challenge. Credit: Klawe Rzeazy
Sequencing a continent as large and biodiverse as Africa is a unique challenge. Credit: Klawe Rzeazy

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news,
opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.

Though Africa is home to the second largest collection of biodiversity on earth, many of its unique plants, animals and microbes are facing extinction due to human activities and climate change.

Tragically, very little is known about many these species — a dearth of knowledge that is depriving the world of innovations and solutions to pressing challenges in food, nutrition and health.

But that’s about to change. A group of African scientists — experts in genetics, genomics and bioinformatics — have set an ambitious goal to unlock the secrets of plant and animal diversity across the continent through a unique genome sequencing project.

Rich diversity, limited knowledge

The African BioGenome Project (AfricaBP), launched in 2021, seeks to sequence the genomes of 105,000 endemic plants, animals, fungi and other organisms that have economic, scientific and cultural significance.

The project, which currently involves more than 109 African scientists and 22 African organizations, will decode each organism to explore the rich biodiversity of 2,500 indigenous African species, including the Boyle’s beaked blind snake (Rhinotyphlops boylei) from southern Africa and the red mangrove tree (Rhizophora mangle) from Nigeria.

Genome sequencing will inform biodiversity conservation across Africa and strengthen the continent’s ability to meet the goals of the post-2020 global diversity framework of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), said Appolinaire Djikeng, a genomics scientist and director of the Center for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. He’s one of the AfricaBP promoters.

The need to understand Africa’s rich biodiversity is long overdue, says ThankGod Ebenezer, a bioinformatician at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in the United Kingdom who is involved in the AfricaBP. To date, sequencing done in Africa by Africans has been miniscule, he said.

Africa can build capacity and expertise in genome sequencing analysis, as demonstrated by projects such as the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) consortium, Ebenezer said. However, Africa has lagged in sequencing its indigenous species for the benefit of its people.

The genome is the heart of any living organism, holding the codes that dictate its appearance and much of its behavior, for instance. Sequencing enables the decoding of each organism to explore biodiversity.

“The main driver here is the rich biodiversity that we have in Africa, either in the plant community or animal community and also in the microbes,” Djikeng said.

Biodiversity hotspots

Africa is home to eight of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and the Congo Basin rainforest, which alone accounts for 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Biodiversity hotspots are areas identified to have the most biologically rich places on earth, according to the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Prof. Appolinaire Djikeng, director of the Center for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health at the University of Edinburgh. Credit: Maverick Photo Agency

Climate change will exacerbate the effects of previous threats to biodiversity with Africa one of the regions likely to be among the most affected, according to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The project is driven by the urgency to widen access and benefit sharing of biological resources across Africa, Ebenezer said. Various international agencies and agreements share that objective.

The United Nations Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing advocates for the fair and equitable sharing of genetic resources, while the new Global Framework for Managing Nature through 2030 identifies safeguarding the genetic diversity of wild and domesticated species and saving at least 90 percent of their genetic diversity as one of 10 milestones.

Djikeng described the Africa Biogenome Project as a long-term ambitious vision for Africa to complete the genome sequencing of different species.

“It will not happen today or tomorrow. It’s a long-term vision but we hope that along the way we will build genomic education in Africa for us to appreciate the importance of this discipline,” Djikeng said.

The project will harness genomic information for diagnostics and accelerating plant and animal breeding, in addition to building the infrastructure and ecosystem for genomic science in Africa to benefit the local communities that are custodians of the unique species, he added.

Playing catch up

Globally, some 3,000 animal and 800 plant genomes have been sequenced. Yet only 20 of the plants are African species, even though the continent has 45,000 species of plants, second to South America. Of the 20, none were sequenced in Africa, Ebenezer noted. Similarly, only 300 of the animals are from Africa and just 11 were sequenced on the continent.

“We are not where we should be,” observed Djikeng, who has sequenced numerous genomes, including that of a pathogen that causes sleeping sickness in people and animals.

“Past genome projects have looked at plant species which are indigenous to Africa, but that sequencing was done in the USA or Europe,” Djikeng said. “We have some sequencing platforms and labs across the African continent but we have not built what comes next for the data to be analyzed within Africa. For other scientific questions to be posed and answered within Africa we still rely heavily on Europe, North America and other places to run our genomics ambition.”

fpls g
Modern plant breeding combines rapid phenotyping, genomics and environmental factors to speed up genetic gains. Credit: Crossa et. al

“We have missed out, but recent examples show that we can catch up. If you look at COVID and Ebola, very well established genomic scientists in Africa have saved the day,” Djikeng said, citing the work of Prof. Túlio de Oliveira in South Africa, Dr. Samuel Oyola in Kenya and Prof. Christian Hapi in Nigeria. About 70 percent of Africa’s genomic sequencing capacity is concentrated in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt.

A billion-dollar vision

The AfricaBP will be implemented over a decade and researchers  calculate that it will require funding of about $100 million  per year. It will convene 55 African researchers and policy makers from genomics, bioinformatics, biodiversity and agriculture — 11 for each of the Africa Union’s geographical region, according to a  paper  published in  Nature in March 2022.

The $1 billion will come from governments, industry and bilateral funders, Djikeng explained. African universities already involved in genomic science are interested in the project.

The Africa Union is also excited about the project, Djikeng said. The AU sees the project delivering on its Agenda 2063, which recognizes science, technology and innovation as the major drivers and enablers for achieving AU and member state development goals.

Credit: NEPAD

To further support the project, the AfricaBP Open Institute for Genomics and Bioinformatics has been created as a knowledge exchange platform for the delivery of capacity, training and for industry people who want to connect with genomics experts across Africa. The transfer of material is a key policy issue, Ebenezer noted.

Busani Bafana is a multiple award-winning correspondent based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe with over 10 years of experience, specializing in environmental and business journalism and online reporting.

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and is reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly

The biotechnology revolution in biomedicine, farming, and gene drives to eradicate pests has yielded enormous benefits, but future success is not assured. It is easier than ever for advocacy groups to spread disinformation on pressing science issues or for corporations to ‘capture’ innovation for its own benefit. To inform the public about what’s really going on, we present the facts and challenge those who don’t. We can’t do this without your help. Please support us – a donation of as little as $10 a month helps support our vital myth-challenging efforts.


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Monarch butterfly populations are thriving in North America

Summer numbers have remained stable for 25 years despite dire warningsPeer-Reviewed Publication


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Monarch butterflies

For years, scientists have warned that monarch butterflies are dying off in droves because of diminishing winter colonies. But new research from the University of Georgia shows that the summer population of monarchs has remained relatively stable over the past 25 years.  

Published in Global Change Biology, the study suggests that population growth during the summer compensates for butterfly losses due to migration, winter weather and changing environmental factors.  

“There’s this perception out there that monarch populations are in dire trouble, but we found that’s not at all the case,” said Andy Davis, corresponding author of the study and an assistant research scientist in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology. “It goes against what everyone thinks, but we found that they’re doing quite well. In fact, monarchs are actually one of the most widespread butterflies in North America.” 

The study authors caution against becoming complacent, though, because rising global temperatures may bring new and growing threats not just to monarchs but to all insects. 

“There are some once widespread butterfly species that now are in trouble,” said William Snyder, co-author of the paper and a professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “So much attention is being paid to monarchs instead, and they seem to be in pretty good shape overall. It seems like a missed opportunity. We don’t want to give the idea that insect conservation isn’t important because it is. It’s just that maybe this one particular insect isn’t in nearly as much trouble as we thought.” 

This study represents the largest and most comprehensive assessment of breeding monarch butterfly population to date. 

The researchers compiled more than 135,000 monarch observations from the North American Butterfly Association between 1993 and 2018 to examine population patterns and possible drivers of population changes, such as precipitation and widespread use of agricultural herbicides.  

The North American Butterfly Association utilizes citizen-scientists to document butterfly species and counts across North America during a two-day period every summer. Each group of observers has a defined circle to patrol that spans about 15 miles in diameter, and the observers tally all butterflies they see, including monarchs. 

By carefully examining the monarch observations, the team found an overall annual increase in monarch relative abundance of 1.36% per year, suggesting that the breeding population of monarchs in North America is not declining on average. Although wintering populations in Mexico have seen documented declines in past years, the findings suggest that the butterflies’ summer breeding in North America makes up for those losses. 

That marathon race to Mexico or California each fall, Davis said, may be getting more difficult for the butterflies as they face traffic, bad weather and more obstacles along the way south. So fewer butterflies are reaching the finish line.

“But when they come back north in the spring, they can really compensate for those losses,” Davis said. “A single female can lay 500 eggs, so they’re capable of rebounding tremendously, given the right resources. What that means is that the winter colony declines are almost like a red herring. They’re not really representative of the entire species’ population, and they’re kind of misleading. Even the recent increase in winter colony sizes in Mexico isn’t as important as some would like to think.”

Changing monarch migration patterns 

One concern for conservationists has been the supposed national decline in milkweed, the sole food source for monarch caterpillars. But Davis believes this study suggests that breeding monarchs already have all the habitat they need in North America. If they didn’t, Davis said, the researchers would have seen that in this data.

“Everybody thinks monarch habitat is being lost left and right, and for some insect species this might be true but not for monarchs,” Davis said. If you think about it, monarch habitat is people habitat. Monarchs are really good at utilizing the landscapes we’ve created for ourselves. Backyard gardens, pastures, roadsides, ditches, old fields—all of that is monarch habitat.”

In some parts of the U.S., monarchs have a year-round or nearly year-round presence, which leads some researchers to believe the insects may in part be moving away from the annual migration to Mexico. San Francisco, for example, hosts monarchs year-round because people plant non-native tropical milkweed. And Florida is experiencing fewer freezes each year, making its climate an alternative for monarchs that would normally head across the border. 

“There’s this idea out there about an insect apocalypse—all the insects are going to be lost,” said Snyder. “But it’s just not that simple. Some insects probably are going to be harmed; some insects are going to benefit. You really have to take that big pig picture at a more continental scale over a relatively long time period to get the true picture of what’s happening.” 

The study was funded by grants from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  

The paper was co-authored by Timothy Meehan, of the National Audubon Society; Matthew Moran, of Hendrix College; and Jeffrey Glassberg, of Rice University and the North American Butterfly Association. Michael Crossley, who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Entomology and is now at the University of Delaware, is first author of the paper. 

Note to editors: Video footage of monarch butterflies is available at the following link https://www.dropbox.com/s/qrv6of01skeibi7/Monarch_B_Roll.mp4?dl=0

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Global Change Biology


Opposing global change drivers counterbalance trends in breeding North American monarch butterflies



Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.


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Monarch butterflies bounce back in Mexico wintering grounds

Experts say 35% rise in acreage covered by migratory insects my reflect adaptation to changing climate

Monarch butterflies rest on a plant in El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, in Michoacán, Mexico, in January.
Monarch butterflies rest on a plant in El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, in Michoacán, Mexico, in January. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

AP in Mexico CityTue 24 May 2022 15.34 EDT

  • Mexican experts have said that 35% more monarch butterflies arrived this year to spend the winter in mountaintop forests, compared with the previous season.

Experts say the rise may reflect the butterflies’ ability to adapt to more extreme bouts of heat or drought by varying the date when they leave Mexico.

The government commission for natural protected areas said the butterflies’ population covered 2.84 hectares (7 acres) this year, compared with 2.1 hectares last year.

The annual butterfly count does not calculate the individual number of butterflies, but rather the number of acres they cover when they clump together on tree boughs.

A western monarch butterfly lands on a plant iln Pismo Beach, California.

Each year the monarchs return to the United States and Canada on an annual migration that is threatened by loss of the milkweed their caterpillars feed on north of the border, and deforestation in Mexico.

Gloria Tavera, the regional director of Mexico’s commission for national protected areas, said on Monday that logging in the butterflies’ wintering ground rose by about 4.5% this year, to 13.9 hectares.

However, fewer trees were lost to fire, drought or plant diseases and pests. So overall tree loss in the 2021-22 season was 18.8 hectares, down from 20.2 hectares in the 2020-21 season.

The butterflies traditionally arrive in the mountaintop pine and fir forests west of Mexico City in late October and the start of November. They normally leave for the US and Canada in March.

But Tavera said that last year was unusual, because the monarchs began leaving in February; that allowed them to get out before drought and heat hit just north of the border in April and May.

“They are beginning to adapt to extreme climate conditions,” Tavera said.

Strangely, this year, the butterflies stuck around in Mexico longer than usual. “They left very late. We still had butterflies in April,” Tavera said. It remains to be seen in next year’s figures whether that strategy worked for them.

While activists and students in the US and Canada have been urged to plant milkweed, to make up for the losses of the plant due to the clearance of farm and pasture land and the use of herbicides, that strategy has backfired in Mexico.

Tavera urged Mexicans not to plant milkweed, saying it might disrupt the migration by encouraging monarchs to stick around, rather than leave for the north. She also urged people not to breed monarchs in captivity – they are sometimes released at weddings or other celebrations – saying that could spread diseases among the insects.

Jorge Rickards of the WWF environmental group said that, despite the increase this year, “this continues to be a migration phenomenon at risk.”

**EMBARGO**HOLD FOR RELEASE UNTIL 6 a.m. PST, THURSDAY, JAN. 23, 2020 FILE - This Aug. 19, 2015, file photo, shows a monarch butterfly in Vista, Calif. The western monarch butterfly population wintering along California’s coast remained critically low for the second year in a row, a count by an environmental group released Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, showed. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

One bright spot was that more 160,000 tourists visited the butterfly reserves in Mexico in 2021, a 132% increase over the number that visited during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Drought, severe weather and loss of habitat – especially of the milkweed where the monarchs lay their eggs – as well as pesticide and herbicide use, and climate change, all pose threats to the species’ migration. Illegal logging and loss of tree cover due to disease, drought and storms also continues to plague the reserves.

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Two New Beetle Species Identified at NEON Field Site in Hawai’i

Entomology Today Leave a Comment

Mecyclothorax, a diverse genus of ground beetles inhabiting Pacific island volcanoes, has reached 241 species with two new species discovered at the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve. At left is a male Mecyclothorax neonomas, and at right is a male Mecyclothorax brunneonubiger. (Photos by Kip Will, Ph.D.)

By Zoe Gentes

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Observatory Blog. Republished with permission.

It’s always exciting when a new species is identified at a National Ecological Observatory Network field site. At Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve (PUUM) in Hawai`i, researchers have verified the discovery of two previously undescribed species of carabids (ground beetles). Kip Will, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, and James Liebherr, Ph.D., of Cornell University recently published their findings in The Pan-Pacific Entomologist: “Two new species of Mecyclothorax Sharp, 1903 (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Moriomorphini) from the Island of Hawai’i.

The two new species are both members of Mecyclothorax, a genus of ground beetles most diverse on volcanoes in the Hawaiian Islands and the Society Islands of French Polynesia. The newly named Mecyclothorax neonomas and Mecyclothorax brunneonubiger bring the number of known Mecyclothorax species in Hawai`i to 241 (many of them previously described and cataloged by Liebherr). Their discovery could provide new insights into the evolutionary history of the genus.

The Road to Discovery

At the the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve in Hawai`i, researchers have verified the discovery of two previously undescribed species of ground beetles. Kip Will, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, and James Liebherr, Ph.D., of Cornell University recently published their findings in March in The Pan-Pacific Entomologist. (Photo courtesy of National Ecological Observatory Network)

Will is one of two researchers contracted by the NEON program for definitive identification of carabids. He studies carabids worldwide and provides identification for the NEON program for carabids found in the western United States, including Hawai`i. Liebherr is one of the premier U.S. experts on carabids, especially those of the Hawaiian Islands. Over the last 20 years, he and his students have created the most extensive and authoritative guide to Hawaiian carabids to date. Will completed his Ph.D. thesis at Cornell under Liebherr’s tutelage.

Will first discovered the suspect specimens in a group of carabids sent to him for identification from PUUM. “When the NEON samples arrived for identification, it was my first time seriously working with Hawaiian carabids,” he says. He quickly realized that two of the specimens did not match species already described in Liebherr’s publications: “I said, hey, Jim, your key doesn’t work—these must be something new!” He sent the specimens to Cornell, where Liebherr confirmed the identification of two new species. Discovering new carabid species is par for the course for these researchers, but these are the first new Hawaiian carabid species identified with NEON samples.

Hawai’i is where Will first found his love of the insect world. He served eight years in the U.S. Army prior to starting his scientific career; while stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawai’i in the 1980s, he started volunteering with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which had a very active field entomology program at that time. He was smitten with the diversity of the insect world. “They had a fantastic collection there, and the researchers were very enthusiastic,” says Will. “They brought me on as a volunteer and took the time to explain everything.”

After leaving the Army, Will earned a degree in entomology from Ohio State University and eventually a Ph.D. from Cornell. He spent much time in the southern hemisphere, chasing carabids through South Africa, South America, and Australia. “Carabids give me an excuse to go everywhere. Wherever they are found, I’ll be there,” he says. Finding these two new species in the Hawaiian samples brings him full circle to his entomology roots on the islands.

Mecyclothorax neonomas (male at left, female at right) is one of two new species of carabid beetle discovered recently at the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve in Hawai`i. (Photo by Kip Will, Ph.D.)

Illuminating Evolutionary Relationships Among Ground Beetles in Hawai`i

Will’s primary interest in entomology is phylogenetics, or the evolutionary relationships among species. Carabids in general, and Mecyclothorax in particular, provide excellent opportunities for phylogenetic studies. According to Liebherr, the 241 known species of Mecyclothorax in Hawai`i evolved over a period of 1.2 million to 1.9 million years. “They aren’t messing around when it comes to diversification,” he says.

Studying the differences between the species and the habitats they are found in can provide insights into how they evolved and diversified. Many species are found in tiny evolutionary niches. Over the course of Liebherr’s field studies in Hawai’i, he and his students identified 116 species of Mecyclothorax on a single volcano, including 74 species new to science. Volcanic islands, like those found in Hawai’i, have numerous “microhabitats” that promote rapid speciation for insects like Mecyclothorax. For example, individuals of a species might prefer streamside or aquatic habitats, leaf litter habitats on the forest floor, or arboreal microhabitats in epiphytic mosses or plants. Also, species on oceanic islands (especially wingless species such as those in the Mecyclothorax genus) often exhibit diminished dispersal abilities, and so each volcanic ridge may support species different from those on an adjoining ridge. The two new species discovered at PUUM, for example, are among those more likely to be found in terrestrial habitats within the forest, which makes them more susceptible to capture in the pitfall traps used by the NEON program.

Different species of Mecyclothorax are recognized by distinct morphology, striations evident in their exoskeletons, the species-specific form of the genitalia, and other physical characteristics, which also provide clues about the relationships between species. Will says, “The average person would just say, ‘There’s another shiny little brown beetle,’ but each species is unique based on their characteristics.” Species with more similar markings or morphology may be more closely related. Will explains, “We can look at the current distribution of species for clues as to how the taxa of particular fauna assembled over time. Looking at where we have representatives of related species on different volcanoes, and knowing the ages of each volcano, can tell us how they diversified and how they came to be where they are.”

Why Care About Carabids?

Mecyclothorax brunneonubiger (male shown here) is one of two new species of carabid beetle discovered recently at the National Ecological Observatory Network’s Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve in Hawai`i. (Photo by Kip Will, Ph.D.)

Carabids are found in practically every ecosystem across the globe, with an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 species worldwide and nearly 2,500 known species in the U.S. alone. They are also good environmental indicators. Many species are highly specialized for their habitats and very sensitive to changes in the environment. These characteristics make them ideal subjects for NEON data collection. The NEON program collects ground beetles in pitfall traps at terrestrial field sites. Studying carabid populations across geographic regions and over time can provide insights into climate and ecosystem change and ecosystem dynamics.

Will explains, “The NEON program made a smart choice in sampling carabids. They are a group of insects that can be uniformly sampled to get at both shorter- and longer-term dynamics. They show just enough sensitivity to ecosystem and climate change—they’re tough enough to survive some change, but sensitive enough to show a response we can learn from.”

Carabids are found in large numbers in many habitats and play important roles in the ecosystem. Most are predators or scavengers. Some are the apex predators of the insect world in their domains, making some species very useful for bio-pest control. Many are highly specialized, with unique adaptations that allow them to go after specific prey such as hard-shelled snails or poison-spewing millipedes. These differences were what made carabids so fascinating to Will. “They are really important players in the ecosystem. If you want to have a robust ecosystem, they are part of that,” he says.

In the years to come, the NEON program’s carabid data will allow researchers to keep a close eye on shifting populations in Hawai’i and across the country. One issue Will plans to keep an eye on in Hawai’i is the impact of invasive carabid species on native Hawaiian species—for example, the invasive Trechus obtusus, which has shown up in large numbers in pitfall traps at PUUM. “That’s the beauty of consistent sampling year after year,” he says. “It allows us to see how populations ebb and flow and where additional native or non-native species are moving in or native species are getting pushed out. NEON lets us see these shifts over time.”

Read More

Two new species of Mecyclothorax Sharp, 1903 (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Moriomorphini) from the Island of Hawai‵i

The Pan-Pacific Entomologist

Zoe Gentes is a senior communications specialist at Battelle with the National Ecological Observatory Network Program. Email: gentes@battelleecology.org.

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Insect wingbeats will help quantify biodiversity

Date:February 22, 2022 Source:University of Copenhagen – Faculty of Science Summary: Insect populations are plummeting worldwide, with major consequences for our ecosystems and without us quite knowing why. A new AI method is set to help monitor and catalog insect biodiversity, which until now has been quite challenging.Share:


Insect populations are plummeting worldwide, with major consequences for our ecosystems and without us quite knowing why. A new AI method from the University of Copenhagen is set to help monitor and catalogue insect biodiversity, which until now has been quite challenging.

Insects are vital as plant pollinators, as a food source for a wide variety of animals and as decomposers of dead material in nature. But in recent decades, they have been struggling. It is estimated that 40 percent of insect species are in decline and a third of them are endangered.

Therefore, it is more important than ever to monitor insect biodiversity, so as to understand their decline and hopefully help them out. So far, this task has been difficult and resource-intensive. In part, this is due to the fact that insects are small and very dynamic. Furthermore, scientific researchers and public agencies need to set up traps, capture insects and study them under the microscope.

To overcome these hurdles, University of Copenhagen researchers have developed a method that uses the data obtained from an infrared sensor to recognize and detect the wingbeats of individual insects. The AI method is based on unsupervised machine learning — where the algorithms can group insects belonging to the same species without any human input. The results from this method could provide information about the diversity of insect species in a natural space without anyone needing to catch and count the critters by hand.

“Our method makes it much easier to keep track of how insect populations are evolving. There has been a huge loss of insect biomass in recent years. But until we know exactly why insects are in decline, it is difficult to develop the right solutions. This is where our method can contribute new and important knowledge,” states PhD student Klas Rydhmer of the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at UCPH’s Faculty of Science, who helped develop the method.

Advanced artificial intelligence

The researchers have already developed an algorithm that identifies pests in agricultural fields. But instead of identifying insects as pests, the researchers have been able to develop this new algorithm to identify and count various insect populations in nature based on the measurements obtained from the sensor.

“The sensor is a bit like the wildlife surveillance cameras used to monitor the movements of larger animals in nature. But instead of snapping a photo, the sensor measures insects that have has flown into the light source. The algorithm then uses the insect’s wingbeat to identify them into different groups,” explains Assistant Professor Raghavendra Selvan of the Department of Computer Science, who led the development of the artificial intelligence used in the sensor.

The algorithm distinguishes insects by their silhouettes when their wings are folded out, as it is only then that their physical differences become most apparent. It then compares the silhouettes of different insect recordings, and puts similar silhouettes into the same group which can then be used to determine the insect that most likely flew through the light beam.

Prototype to be released in spring

When insects emerge in full force come spring, scientists will be using the initial prototype to venture out into nature and collect real-world data.

Until now, researchers have tested the algorithm and artificial intelligence using a large image database of insects recordings obtained in controlled conditions and some real-world data, where results have been promising.

“We will test the sensor in different landscapes, including heathland, forests and agricultural areas, to see how it works out in the real world. But also, to feed the algorithm more data, so that it can become even more accurate,” says Raghavendra Selvan.

According to the researchers, their invention makes it possible to monitor many geographical areas more thoroughly than has been possible in the past. At the same time, the invention makes it less resource-intensive to keep a close eye on insects, which make up 80 percent of all terrestrial animal species.

“Today, it is impossible to afford the kind of monitoring needed to gain a more precise overview of how our insects are doing. This sensor only needs humans to place it out in the wild. Once there, it begins collecting data on local insect populations,” concludes Klas Rydhmer.


  • Insects are the largest, most diverse group of described animal species on Earth. They make up about 80% of all terrestrial animal species on the planet.
  • It is the first time that this artificial intelligence method, known as Variational Auto Encoder (VAE), is being used to take inventory of insect biodiversity.
  • Using an optical signal from an infrared sensor, the algorithm is able to decode insects flying through a light beam.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Copenhagen – Faculty of ScienceNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Klas Rydhmer, Raghavendra Selvan. Dynamic β-VAEs for quantifying biodiversity by clustering optically recorded insect signalsEcological Informatics, 2021; 66: 101456 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoinf.2021.101456

Cite This Page:

University of Copenhagen – Faculty of Science. “Insect wingbeats will help quantify biodiversity.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 February 2022. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/02/220222135250.htm>.

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Using airborne DNA to monitor insect biodiversity

Many species leave detectable traces of DNA behind in the air.BYAMIT MALEWAR DECEMBER 15, 2021 SCIENCE

Coriolis µ. The air sampler used to obtain eDNA from insects in the field. It works by sucking in air and swirling it through water, where the particles contained in the air get captured.  Credit: Fabian Roger
Coriolis µ. The air sampler used to obtain eDNA from insects in the field. It works by sucking in air and swirling it through water, where the particles contained in the air get captured.  Credit: Fabian Roger

Biodiversity is in decline due to human land use, exploitation, and climate change. It is paramount to monitor biodiversity globally to counteract this alarming trend closely. Because this is practically impossible with traditional methods, the last decade has seen a strong push for solutions.

The development of environmental DNA or eDNA is an exciting new technology, offering a more rapid, sensitive, and powerful tool to monitor biodiversity. In aquatic ecosystems, monitoring species from environmental DNA (eDNA) has emerged as one of the most potent tools. Still, in terrestrial ecosystems, the power of eDNA for monitoring has been hampered by the local scale of the samples.

Scientists at Lund University have discovered that it is possible to detect insect DNA in the air for the first time. Using air from three sites in Sweden, they could identify insect DNA from 85 species. It offers scope for exploring a whole new way to monitor terrestrial biodiversity.

These preliminary results will be presented at Ecology Across Borders (13th-15th December) via an online poster by Dr. Fabian Roger, who is currently working at ETH Zürich.

Insects detected included many essential species such as bees, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, and ants. The study also showed evidence of insects and many vertebrate species, including birds, mammals, and some domestic species.

In many areas, insects are declining at an alarming rate, but we also know very little about the number of species in existence. It is estimated that we have described 1 million out of 5.5 million insect species on Earth. This means it is vital to develop efficient ways to monitor biodiversity.

Fabian Roger said, “In the face of the biodiversity crisis, we desperately need better information on the status and distribution of species. Our study is a proof of concept that shows that we can detect DNA from insects and vertebrates from air collected under natural conditions. This opens many exciting possibilities for species monitoring and detection, which could allow us to comprehensively monitor biodiversity at large spatial and temporal scales.”

Researchers detected airborne DNA from moths, as well as bees, flies, beetles, wasps and ants. Image from Wikimedia. Credit: Charles J. Sharp
Researchers detected airborne DNA from moths, as well as bees, flies, beetles, wasps and ants. Image from Wikimedia. Credit: Charles J. Sharp

Sampling DNA from the air offers benefits over traditional sampling methods. Insects are commonly sampled using malaise traps, which leads to the death of the creatures. Alternatives, such as transect walks and moth trapping, require taxonomic expertise and generally focus on the larger species of insects. A DNA metabarcoding approach means that multiple species can be detected from a single sample. Therefore, airborne DNA metabarcoding would speed upsampling and allow scientists to scale up biodiversity surveys – all without harming the species that live there.

In this study, when the researchers compared the results with traditional surveys, they found some overlap in the species detected. Some species were not found with the conventional methods, but the airborne DNA method could not pick many species. For example, the researchers found 48 moth species in the traps and nine moth species through eDNA, with an overlap of 4. Being in its infancy, the researchers have many ideas on how this can be improved and are confident that airborne DNA metabarcoding can become a powerful tool for biodiversity monitoring.

Next, the scientists will optimize the methods to increase the reliability of airborne DNA metabarcoding. They also need a greater understanding of how DNA moves through the air. Luckily, meteorologists and aerosol scientists have studied the movement of airborne particles for decades, offering a vast pool of expertise for accelerating this work. Excitingly, the method also can detect invasive species or even early detection of disease vectors.

“We are at the very beginning of exploring airborne environmental DNA for anything other than bacteria, pollen, or spores – and even there, we have only scratched the surface. One of the first challenges will be to optimize sampling and molecular methods to increase sensitivity and achieve more reliable detection. Then we will need to understand how airborne eDNA is generated, transported and degraded.” said Fabian Roger, who then added: “Just because it doesn’t work perfectly out-of-the-box doesn’t mean it won’t work ever, and the potential is huge.” Dr. Fabian Roger will present the work at Ecology Across Borders.

This work is unpublished and has not been through the peer-review process yet. This conference will bring together over 1000 ecologists to discuss the most recent breakthroughs in ecology.

Journal Reference

  1. Roger F, Ghanavi H, Danielsson N, Wahlberg N, Löndahl J, Pettersson LB, Andersson GKS, Olén NB, Clough Y. 2021 Airborne environmental DNA metabarcoding for the monitoring of terrestrial insects – a proof of concept. bioRxiv, 2021.07.26.453860. DOI: 10.1101/2021.07.26.453860


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