Autonomous swimming robots are being deployed to take environmental DNA (eDNA) — the genetic material like mucus, waste and dead skin cells shed by all living things — samples from the ocean to determine how organisms move across the aquatic world.

Ocean scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have deployed long-range autonomous underwater vehicles equipped with environmental sample processors designed to autonomously harvest evidence of the marine life entering various ocean regions under examination.

Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research InstituteSource: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Once the system collects water samples, the environmental sample processor can either process those samples — using chemicals to break down the captured organic debris within the sample, thereby releasing proteins and strands of DNA — or the samples can be preserved, with space on the device carousel for up to 60 samples per deployment.

In addition to revealing what animal groups have frequented a specific location as evidenced by the presence of their eDNA in the seawater sample, researchers intend to use the information to observe how animal behaviors are being impacted by climate change. Once processed, the team will also use the extracted DNA data to help create a biological database of animals, according to the researchers.

According to the team of ocean scientists, automating the process of collecting samples — wherein humans would have to repeatedly drop a bottle into the water off the side of a ship, collect the sample and retrieve the bottle — could potentially expand coverage to remote and unexplored parts of the ocean.

The environmental sample processer is detailed in the article, Expanding the temporal and spatial scales of environmental DNA research with autonomous sampling, which appears in the journal Environmental DNA.

For more information on the system, watch the accompanying video that appears courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

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