Environmental DNA (eDNA) a Powerful Tool for Food Security

Food production systems are facing unprecedented pressure from climate change, loss of arable land, new pests and diseases, and a decline in pollinator species such as birds and insects. Newly published research supported by South West Catchments Council has identified environmental DNA or ‘eDNA’ technology as a powerful tool in the fight to secure Australia’s food future.

Standard DNA testing samples are taken from the individual under assessment – in humans, this may be through a mouth swab or blood test. Environmental DNA is collected from the environment – such as soil, water or even flowers – rather than the individual. Analysis using innovative molecular technology can detect species-specific DNA deposited by organisms that have been present within the environment or substrate under analysis.

Curtin University researcher, Joshua Kestel, is using eDNA technology to assess which insects visit avocado flowers. This information will help to determine the distribution of beneficial, flower-visiting insects as well as ‘antagonistic’, non-beneficial species. Understanding how these species interact with crops can inform future pollinator management techniques, such as interrow planting of insect-attracting plants or species-specific pest control.

Mr Kestel said: “Our study offers an exciting opportunity to understand how pollinating insects in the biodiversity hotspot of South West Australia interrelate with avocado orchards. This will provide management strategies to help introduce this diverse community into agricultural practices.”

Early results have shown that thrips beetles, flies, hoverflies, native bees and European honeybees are the main visitors to avocado flowers. The project team are now investigating whether the presence of remnant bushland adjacent to orchards affects the numbers of these insects.

The team at Curtin University, along with colleagues at Edith Cowan University, has recently published a research paper in ‘Science of the Total Environment’ revealing that, although eDNA technology has significant potential to improve food security, it is underutilized in the agricultural sector. Only 4% of eDNA research conducted to date has related to food production, and the trend is most pronounced in emerging economies where food security is most at risk.

It is hoped that the results of the avocado pollinator study will showcase the potential of eDNA to enhance agricultural productivity and encourage wider use of this highly promising technology.

The research paper is available here. This project is supported by South West Catchments Council through funding from the Australian Government, along with Hort Innovation and Curtin University.

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