April 18 2021
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Tiny Scoops Of Water Are Unlocking Worlds Of Information About Oregon Watersheds
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Story by Bradley W. Parks - Story Source
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Environmental DNA, or eDNA, can help identify who's in a river, stream or creek. Now, it's helping scientists learn how threatened salmon and trout adapt to a changing environment. Next to the babbling banks of the Santiam River's south fork, Brooke Penaluna sought a flat spot to set up shop. She plopped down a black, pipe-like reservoir with four clear cups on top and clicked the power button on a small pump that sounded like the world's tiniest lawnmower.

"And then we put on our gloves and our waders, and we go out into the stream," said Penaluna, who works as a research fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Near the middle of the river, Penaluna carefully dipped four plastic bottles into the oncoming water, tightly capping them for the journey back to shore.

Inside those bottles, scientists are finding worlds of information that could be key to the long-term health of Oregon watersheds and all who share them.

With each scoop of water comes a trove of what's called "environmental DNA," or eDNA for short. Just like humans are almost constantly shedding skin cells, hair and other particles laced with genetic information, so are all the organisms in our waterways.

A few years ago, scientists were running tests to determine whether eDNA could reliably tell them who was living in Oregon's rivers, streams, creeks, lakes and reservoirs. Turns out it can.

"We come out here and we can identify up to 900 different organisms in this river system," Penaluna said.

Now, biologists are taking the science a step further. Scientists with Oregon State University and the Forest Service recently demonstrated they can use eDNA to analyze the genetic diversity of threatened salmon and trout, which can help us understand how they will adapt to climate change and other threats.

"The more variable the organisms are, the greater ability they have to be flexible and adapt and change into the future," Penaluna said. Read full story