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Danes behind groundbreaking DNA technique

New DNA research turns up and down on our monitoring of nature. With a single soil or water sample biologists can now estimate the number and variety of species in an ecosystem

How do you classify every species of vertebrate living in a given environmental niche? For years, biologists have resorted to brute force — trapping and tagging individual animals to extrapolate population data. But soon this may be a thing of the past:

A handful of Danish scientists led by Professor Eske Willerslev from GeoGenetics at University of Copenhagen have found a way to provide accurate insight into an area's biodiversity – by tracing animal DNA in a small sample of a given animal habitat.

With a small water sample, for instance, the researchers have demonstrated that they can detect the number and variety of animal species living in a given freshwater lake. Thus, it is possible that fishing quotas in the future can be estimated from DNA traces rather than catches.

Can be used in other contexts

In a different context, researcher Eske Willerslev and his colleagues extracted animal DNA from samples of soil taken from zoo´s, animal parks and farms with known numbers of vertebrate species.

When Willerslev's team examined and cross referenced these samples with samples from the DNA database GenBank, they found DNA from all but one of the species represented in the various parks, gardens, and farms. The researchers also found that they could estimate a species' relative population size based on the relative quantities of the species' DNA in a given sample.

Hmm ... how many Dinosaurs lived here?

What´s more, the researchers found DNA traces from species no longer living in the habitats, suggesting that the DNA method could be used to shed light on animal populations in a given area thousands of years ago.

The Danish research is features in the renowned scientific journal Molecular Ecology.