Diagnosing river health using invertebrate traits and DNA barcodes
The health of Australian waterways will be closely monitored through a better understanding of the organisms living in them, thanks to an IAE research project led by Assistant Professor in water science, Dr Ben Kefford. The project was awarded funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage program, and also includes IAE researchers Dr Sue Nichols and Professor Ralph Mac Nally.
Current river assessment methods are based on aquatic invertebrates and can identify if a river is impaired, but not the cause of decline. Researchers will develop indices that link changes in invertebrate communities to specific environmental stressors. The research will use organism traits, such as lifespan, physiology and stress sensitivity to identify the causes of ecological degradation.
“Information on species’ traits will allow us to determine from their presence or absence the long-term health of a waterway,” says Dr Kefford. “If we know that certain species can’t tolerate low oxygen water, and we no longer find them in what otherwise would be a healthy looking river, we can theorise that oxygen levels have been a problem in the recent past.”
The project also draws on current work at the IAE and the University of Melbourne, in which a DNA library barcode system is being built, allowing researchers to rapidly determine which organisms are present in a water sample. This will speed up the testing process as DNA analysis can identify to species level, without the laborious task of identifying every invertebrate under a microscope.
Combining species traits with access to a DNA library barcode system, researchers can provide results on the health and diversity of waterways and their ecosystems much quicker than previous methods.
The methodologies developed through this project will help inform sustainable water resource management, aid in effective use of limited resources to arrest and to reverse environmental decline, and to meet evolving management and policy needs.
Environmental management agencies in all Australian States and Territories will also contribute to the project, including personnel from the Environment Protection Authorities of South Australia and Victoria, and the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management as partner investigators.