Maltese Landscape
A Maltese Landscape

How DNA can improve Biodiversity Knowledge and Conservation

Every ecosystem is composed of a community of organisms alongside their physical environment. In order to better understand these ecosystems, conservation biologists from the Department of Biology, University of Malta (UM) have begun compiling a wildlife DNA barcode library that can help understand our local wildlife and give us the tools to protect it. 

Healthy, natural environments benefit human wellbeing. The billions of living organisms, ranging from minute microbes to colossal whales, are still being biologically understood through research and appreciated for their contribution to life on Earth and our survival.

The natural balance and stability of different ecosystems, each composed of a rich biological diversity of organisms intricately networking to sustain the complex processes of life, has unfortunately been altered by mankind. There is a pressing need to discover the composition of such biodiversity through accurate identification of each species. Without such data, scientists, governments, and managers of natural resources cannot safeguard ecosystems as effectively and holistically.

A Living Record

Building sustainable futures requires a basis of concrete knowledge about what, how, and where species are declining in numbers and affecting ecosystem health. Luckily, this has been picking up research momentum in the Maltese Islands.

Genetic investigative tools are being developed to study wild species and their populations at local, Mediterranean, and global scales.  Such work has been applied to numerous groups of marine, freshwater, and terrestrial organisms, including: bluefin tuna, sharks, dolphins, turtles, freshwater crabs, bees and other insects, molluscs, and various other species, including alien organisms found on or around the Maltese Islands. Wild species and habitats provide goods and services and contribute to our natural capital and our economic well-being. Yet habitat fragmentation, pollution, climate change, alien introductions, and the exploitation of resources are crippling Maltese biodiversity.

The increasing pressure to preserve biodiversity by 2020 from local to global scale promotes the necessity of species and population-specific conservation research. Several taxa (the ranking of organisms, such as a species, family, or class) remain poorly known or inaccurately identified. This makes conservation difficult or even impossible, as management systems and conservation managers cannot effectively conserve what is unknown. The research project BioCon_Innovate, already well underway, is expanding the digital library of several species from the Maltese Islands, revealing vital knowledge of local to regional genetic diversity. 

By assigning species-specific genetic sequences to various known taxa, genetic data has the potential of identifying new local species, subspecies, or stocks. This is very similar to identifying any supermarket item through its barcode. Each item’s barcode would carry important information, from its cost to its product details. Similarly, a specific DNA sequence found to supply a species’ unique genetic identification may be used to barcode the diverse species on Earth. This part of the study will help expand Maltese wildlife knowledge, which will allow more accurate monitoring strategies to be developed. Additionally, the uploading of local genetic data onto international genetic databases makes it available for further biodiversity analyses and management, both locally and internationally, giving local studies a multinational dimension.

BioCon_Innovate also focuses on the development of an Environmental DNA (eDNA) platform that would link field sampling from different natural environments with local reference DNA sequences. Identification of organisms through eDNA ensures a record of the presence of different species, the extent of biodiversity, and the association between groups of organisms in each environment, without the need to actually sample specimens of each species or population. This rapid and accurate molecular protocol for the identification of local biodiversity increases the efficiency with which the different habitats or natural environments are assessed and monitored. This is possible after detailed genetic studies have been run on each species found in each of the different habitats or ecosystems.

With financial support from the BioCon_Innovate Award Fund and the Environment and Resources Authority, ERA, Malta Fund, the research group was able to conduct an in-depth conservation project. After investigating the freshwater crab’s genetic population structure and genetic diversity in its local fragmented distribution, it becomes possible to select useful genetic markers to detect its presence in an environment. By identifying the organism through eDNA, it becomes possible to detect them by analysing DNA from freshwater samples in habitats where this species is being monitored or sought. Another useful example is the utilisation of eDNA analyses for timely detection of specific alien pests in our countryside or marine coastal environments. 

A Local Project with Global Applications

BioCon_Innovate’s objectives and applications are tightly linked to the actions and goals set by the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020. The ongoing overexploitation of natural resources, impoverishment of biodiversity, and environmental degradation concern everyone from  biodiversity managers and conservation biologists, to policy makers, stakeholders, service-users, and economists. Malta has legal obligations to reach targets listed in the EU’s strategy. It also has its own legal framework and legislation aimed at the protection of biodiversity through various Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations, the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan.

The Conservation Biology Research Group (CBRG-UM) led by Prof. Adriana Vella has been at the forefront in promoting diverse molecular genetic techniques to address biodiversity assessment and management.  This specialised research laboratory has built the capacity and human resources which will increasingly be necessary for Malta’s sustainable economic and environmental development plans. Through such constant search for innovation in the field of conservation, the CBRG-UM has applied for the UM’s Fund for Excellence in Research by presenting the BioCon_Innovate project, which was selected from among all the life science applications of the University of Malta.  It is positive to note that all applications were scrutinised by external assessors. 

As this year has arrived with additional environmental, biodiversity, and health related problems, the EU is now pushing forward for recovery of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 as ‘It is time to fix our broken relationship with nature. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the spread of devastating pandemics demand it.’

European and Maltese ecosystems are facing serious degradation, fragmentation, over-exploitation, and impoverishment. This, coupled with the increasing population density of the Maltese Islands have urged the Maltese National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan to set clear goals for the near future. This includes listing the considerations and protection of genetic resources and diversity, followed by species and habitats conservation and the prevention of alien biological introductions, among other things.

Being able to detect the presence of diverse species in different natural environments is extremely useful in monitoring wild species, including elusive, nocturnal or alien species that may be hard to spot. Utilising the most innovative analytical methods allows for efficient detection of these changes, paving the way to timely mitigation and useful management measures, slowing or stopping the negative repercussions of native species loss or the invasiveness of alien species.

Promoting Awareness and Training in Malta

The UM, through the CBRG-UM led by Prof. Adriana Vella, convened the first Genomic Biodiversity Knowledge for Resilient Ecosystems (G-BIKE) COST Action training school. This unique training school allowed local and foreign conservation managers, practitioners, policy-makers, and researchers to gain insights in useful investigative genomic tools and their outputs for improving the effectiveness of conservation monitoring and management of wild plants and animals, as well as diverse habitats and ecosystems. 

Innovative tools to achieve these targets accurately, efficiently, and with minimal disturbance to species and habitats also involve molecular genetics and genomics techniques. Thus allowing the DNA of any species, population and specimen to shed light on otherwise inaccessible information about the genetic identity, resilience and adaptation of organisms in a changing natural environment, also affected by anthropogenic activities, is essential.

Together with Vella’s contribution to the G-BIKE training school, there were ten other  international experts from Europe and the USA that have worked on diverse ecosystems and considered different plant and animal species. The latest developments in the use and application of molecular genetic techniques were explored considering the specific backgrounds of the participants and their needs with regards to upgrading their skills as conservation practitioners.

BioCon_Innovate is funded by the University of Malta’s Fund for Excellence in Research.

Further reading of some outputs of the BioCon_Innovate project:

EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030. European Commission – European Commission. (2020). Retrieved 1 November 2020, from https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal/actions-being-taken-eu/EU-biodiversity-strategy-2030_en.

Mifsud, C., Magro, D., & Vella, A. (2019). First record and DNA barcode of the clearwing moth Tinthia tineiformis (Esper, 1789) from Malta, central Mediterranean. Check List, 15(4), 595-599. https://doi.org/10.15560/15.4.595

Vella, A., & Vella, N. (2020). First Population Genetic Structure Analysis of the Freshwater Crab Potamon fluviatile (Brachyura: Potamidae) Reveals Fragmentation at Small Geographical Scale. Genetics Of Aquatic Organisms, 4(1), 49-59. https://doi.org/10.4194/2459-1831-v4_1_05

Vella, N., & Vella, A. (2020). The complete mitogenome of the Critically Endangered smalltooth sand tiger shark, Odontaspis ferox (Lamniformes: Odontaspididae). Mitochondrial DNA Part B, 5(3), 3319-3322. https://doi.org/10.1080/23802359.2020.1814886

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