Scientists Collect eDNA Samples in the Arctic Melting Glaciers Autonomously


In the extreme environment of the Arctic, where melting glaciers pose a significant threat, researchers have turned to autonomous technology to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) samples

Photo: INESC Brussels HUB

Portuguese researchers at the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC) and the Interdisciplinary Center of Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR) developed an autonomous biosampler. It is capable of collecting planktonic communities (which play a critical role in marine ecosystems) of different size fractions in situ. In addition, since the filtration is done on-site, it prevents the risk of sample contamination.

The biosampler, a sensor shaped like a cylinder programmed to collect samples, was coupled to IRIS: an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), developed by INESC TEC, that can find its way underwater using acoustics and Artificial Intelligence. This cooperative use of a sampler and an AUV allowed the autonomous collection of samples by researchers, at different stations of the monitoring program.

The operation was carried out at a depth of 15 meters, in waters with low temperatures from melting glaciers located in the fjords of the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard. The water was collected at Kongsfjorden, and the INESC TEC researchers carried out their work at the Ny-Ålesund Research Station, Norway.

eDNA refers to the genetic material obtained from environmental samples such as water, soil, or air. It contains traces of DNA from various organisms, including plants, animals, and microorganisms.

The sampling can provide valuable insights about marine microbial communities in the Arctic region: a single sample containing eDNA can be used to monitor biodiversity, detect climate change effects, or alert to the presence of threats like pathogens.

The Portuguese technology developed by INESC TEC and CIIMAR can operate up to 150 m. The team of researchers who traveled to the Arctic set a two-year goal of operating this technology at a depth of 1,000 meters.