Publications: Peer-reviewed journal articles (by staff)

Wanted dead or alive - Using metabarcoding of environmental DNA and RNA to distinguish living assemblages for biosecurity applications

2 November, 2017


Pochon X, Zaiko A, Fletcher LM, Laroche O, Wood SA 2017. Wanted dead or alive? Using metabarcoding of environmental DNA and RNA to distinguish living assemblages for biosecurity applications. PLoS ONE12(11): e0187636. 

DOI link here


High-throughput sequencing metabarcoding studies in marine biosecurity have largely focused on targeting environmental DNA (eDNA). DNA can persist extracellularly in the environment, making discrimination of living organisms difficult. In this study, bilge water samples (i.e., water accumulating on-board a vessel during transit) were collected from 15 small recreational and commercial vessels. eDNA and eRNA molecules were co-extracted and the V4 region of the 18S ribosomal RNA gene targeted for metabarcoding. In total, 62.7% of the Operational Taxonomic Units (OTUs) were identified at least once in the corresponding eDNA and eRNA reads, with 19.5% unique to eDNA and 17.7% to eRNA. There were substantial differences in diversity between molecular compartments; 57% of sequences from eDNA-only OTUs belonged to fungi, likely originating from legacy DNA. In contrast, there was a higher percentage of metazoan (50.2%) and ciliate (31.7%) sequences in the eRNA-only OTUs. Our data suggest that the presence of eRNA-only OTUs could be due to increased cellular activities of some rare taxa that were not identified in the eDNA datasets, unusually high numbers of rRNA transcripts in ciliates, and/or artefacts produced during the reverse transcriptase, PCR and sequencing steps. The proportions of eDNA/eRNA shared and unshared OTUs were highly heterogeneous within individual bilge water samples. Multiple factors including boat type and the activities performed on-board, such as washing of scientific equipment, may play a major role in contributing to this variability. For some marine biosecurity applications analysis, eDNA-only data may be sufficient, however there are an increasing number of instances where distinguishing the living portion of a community is essential. For these circumstances, we suggest only including OTUs that are present in both eDNA and eRNA data. OTUs found only in the eRNA data need to be interpreted with caution until further research provides conclusive evidence for their origin.