Denmark delivers world's first underwater DNA lab

An aerial view of the Danish coast at Skagen

writer icon Peter Karlsson     Mette Johnsen   |   Tech     🕐 19. Oct. 2018

With ocean preservation becoming an ever more pressing issue, the world is looking to technology to find solutions.

Researchers in Denmark have developed the world's first underwater DNA laboratory.

Observation of DNA
The laboratory, which is currently undergoing testing, checks the water off the coast of Denmark every day. It is observing the DNA traces from different species of fish.

The research is being carried out by the Danish National Institute for Aquatic Resources (DTU Aqua), a research centre connected to the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). They have also collaborated with Swedish researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU Aqua).

Robot assistant
DTU Aqua has designed a robot to assist the laboratory. The robot, an Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) was first developed in the USA for a similar purpose, such as measuring the growth of algae. The Danish design, however, has been reworked. Its ability to collect and measure DNA in this way makes it a world first.

The robot is positioned inside the laboratory, a barrel-like construction. The barrel takes in water, where it filters through the ESP. The robot then extracts the environmental DNA, or eDNA, and analyses the result.

Study marine life
By collecting this information, the robot is able to communicate to the researchers what types of fish are in the water, as they swim by. Daily collections of this sort of data make it easier for scientists to study ocean life in a less invasive way.

It enables the researchers to learn the migratory patterns of the fish. This means they are able to build a picture of when the fish are present.

It also assesses the conditions for the fish. Researchers are able to work out if the fish was present because of the availability of food, or due to rising in sea temperatures.

Conservational value
This is important to conservationists, who use this data to gain a better understanding of how the oceans are being affected by climate change and pollution.

The data collection is also of use to the fishing industry. It can inform the fishermen of where to find the fish, so that they do not need to send out a boat inefficiently. It also assists with keeping track of fish populations.

Scandinavian fishing industry
The fishing industry in Scandinavia is substantial. In terms of fish production, Norway is one of the world’s leading nations, as well as the second largest exporter of fish in terms of value. 

In Denmark and Sweden, the fishing industry represents a much smaller percentage of the overall economy. Even so, commercial fishing plays an important role in some of the coastal communities.

Scandinavian values
One thing that ties all three Scandinavian countries together is their tendency to place importance on good values such as sustainability. Many Scandinavians will be pleased to see these developments toward improving ocean life and sustainable fishing, from both economic and environmental perspectives.

While at present, the ESP only tracks the DNA of four species of fish, in the future it could potentially map out the entire ocean. In this way, the technology could provide valuable information with minimal invasion.

Technology will most likely lead the way in issues of sustainability and the environment, in the same way that it is used to simplify our daily lives. In the case of robotics, it is a positive thing to see robots that are being designed with conservation and sustainability as core values.

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