This experiment is part of the Ocean Solutions Challenge Grant. Browse more projects

What can environmental DNA tell us about California's marine biodiversity?

University of California, Santa Cruz
Los Angeles, California
EcologyEarth Science
DOI: 10.18258/46667
Grant: Ocean SolutionsGrant: Ocean Solutions
Raised of $9,890 Goal
Funded on 5/05/23
Successfully Funded
  • $10,015
  • 101%
  • Funded
    on 5/05/23

About This Project

A new molecular tool that identifies marine species from genetic material in water—“environmental DNA”, or eDNA—could revolutionize ocean monitoring and transform our ability to manage marine ecosystems sustainably. We want to test this tool in Northern California’s oceans. The results will reveal how geographical distributions of California marine species shift during the year and in response to the environment, and will help us forecast the effects of future changes.

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What is the context of this research?

The planet is changing rapidly. To preserve biodiversity and manage natural resources sustainably for all of us, we need ongoing data about the natural world. In ecosystems like the intertidal—the beaches, rocks, and cliffs that separate land from sea—these data have only been collected sparsely over the years through time-intensive surveys. This leaves us in the dark about how this unique, beautiful, and important ecosystem is responding to global change. Environmental DNA or "eDNA" is revolutionizing our ability to monitor marine ecosystems, but has still rarely been deployed for real-time monitoring.

What is the significance of this project?

The project will begin a data collection program on Northern California intertidal ecosystems by sampling eDNA from a range of sites and identifying the species that are present. If this proof of concept is successful, we hope to start a long-term eDNA monitoring program along the West Coast to give us real-time, high-resolution data on what species are present. This will help policymakers and conservationists respond to global change. For example, this type of eDNA monitoring program can provide early warning signals of some species shifting north in response to climate change or others going extinct.

What are the goals of the project?

We'll identify intertidal sites that are already part of biological research programs so we know they are accessible and we have a sense of the baseline ecosystem state. We'll make a schedule of when to visit which sites; hopefully we can do some in multiple seasons to get a sense of how the species present changes through the year. The sampling is straightforward and just involves filling specialized vials with water. Those samples get shipped off to a lab for sequencing, and the lab returns to us a list of which species were present in which samples.

With this list we can ask a bunch of exciting questions about the intertidal. Which species do we find in Northern California? Is that the same or different from other methods? Are they shifting in response to global change?


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Existing funding from the University of California and elsewhere is supporting researcher salaries and student tuition—the bulk of the cost of this research project—but we need funds for equipment and sample processing. This budget covers the physical equipment for collecting samples which we will then ship to a lab for eDNA sequencing at an additional cost.

Endorsed by

As California's oceans are rapidly changing, detecting and monitoring shifts in marine biodiversity is more important than ever. Dr. Fredston's expertise in marine biogeography and her position at UC Santa Cruz make it possible for her to launch a cutting-edge program to monitor marine biodiversity with eDNA. I and other researchers in California and elsewhere will rely on these data for our own projects studying how coastal ocean ecosystems are responding to environmental variability and change.

Project Timeline

In fall 2023 we will order equipment, identify sites, and contract with the sequencing lab. We expect to begin sampling by early 2024. Sampling will continue into spring 2024, budget, time, and weather permitting. Sequencing results will depend on the lab but we hope to receive them by fall 2024.

Apr 05, 2023

Project Launched

Sep 30, 2023

Identify study sites

Oct 31, 2023

Order equipment

Nov 30, 2023

Contract with sequencing lab

Jan 31, 2024

Begin sampling

Meet the Team

Alexa Fredston
Alexa Fredston
Assistant Professor

Alexa Fredston

I'm a marine ecologist fascinated by the way human activities are reshaping the planet, and what that tells us about fundamental properties of nature. Most of my research centers around the question: Why are species found where they are, and what makes them move? The oceans are a dynamic and exciting place to study this question, because species are rapidly migrating all the time, and because so humans rely on the oceans for so much—jobs, food, culture, storm protection, and much more. I use cutting-edge tools to explore these questions, from Bayesian models to environmental DNA.

In 2023 I became an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ocean Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Previously, I was a postdoctoral researcher at Rutgers University. I earned a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2020, and graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2012. From 2012-2014 I worked at the Environmental Defense Fund in San Francisco.

Project Backers

  • 3Backers
  • 101%Funded
  • $10,015Total Donations
  • $3,338.33Average Donation
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