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Katherine Balasingham, a student at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is exploring ways to find rare aquatic species by extracting their left-behind DNA from water samples.Katherine Balasingham, a student at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is exploring ways to find rare aquatic species by extracting their left-behind DNA from water samples.

Study on stress-free method of detecting rare species wins recognition

A student from the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research has won notice for her research in detecting the presence of rare fish species without disturbing them.

MSc candidate Katherine Balasingham is exploring ways to find rare aquatic species by extracting their left-behind DNA from water samples. Her study took second place at the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network II (CAISN) poster competition in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Her project, “Environmental DNA (eDNA) Detection of Rare and Invasive Fish Species in Southern Ontario,” uses the novel technique of eDNA analysis as a non-invasive sampling tool to study both endangered and invasive aquatic species.

“eDNA in aquatic habitats can be found in many forms such as shed skin cells or urine,” says Balasingham. “DNA can be extracted from several water samples taken from areas where the species can or may have occurred. By that, we eliminate the need to capture and disturb the rare species.”

She says that the “last thing” researchers want to do is cause more stress for already stressed species—she is looking at three species at risk due to climate change: Northern madtom (Noturus stigmosus), Silver shiner (Notropis photogenis), and Eastern sand darter (Ammocrypta pellucida).

Balasingham says she was thrilled to have had the opportunity to study the conservation of endangered species without having to catch them, because she has always been an advocate for ethical research, avoiding using animals as much as possible in her research. She calls eDNA  tracing an “incredibly useful” tool.

“It needs to be researched more on its effectiveness in different environments, because it is less harmful to the species,” she says, “crucial as we’re to conserve them and the local biodiversity.”

Professor Hugh MacIsaac, the network’s scientific director, agrees. In presenting Balasingham with the award, he said that eDNA is an important method which will someday be used by researchers in terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems seeking rare species.  

Balasingham started working on her research in September 2013, supervised by UWindsor professors Daniel D. Heath and Ryan P. Walter and University of Toronto professor Nicholas E. Mandrak.