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Researchers Detect and 'Count' Fish From Just A Glass Of Water

Jesse Port
Center for Ocean Solutions
Study co-author Kevan Yamahara collects a water sample at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

It's not something we often think about, but as we go about daily life, we're constantly shedding little flakes of skin. So are animals and fish.

This fact now makes it possible to estimate which species are most plentiful in a lake or bay. And University of Washington professor Ryan Kelly is jazzed about it.

"This is about the coolest project I have been involved in," he says.

That's because Kelly's research team could detect and count with just a glass of seawater the species of fish swimming around nearby.

Kelly says "every living thing is" constantly sloughing off DNA into the environment. Now improved sensitivity of instruments along with the falling cost of DNA sequencing make it feasible to ID many or all of the fragments in a scoop of water.

"What we are doing is building a tool so that you can go out into the world and much more quickly find out about the living resources that are living nearby," explains Kelly.

Kelly says this has the potential to make surveys for endangered species easier. The greatest value could come from simplifying fisheries counts and management.

First though, the researchers have to further validate the technique in open water where you have to contend with dynamic currents and mixing.

The details are newly published in the journal PLOS One. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded this research.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.