EU Science Hub

Genomic technologies for better marine health monitoring

Jul 10 2013

A more widespread use of genomic methods could facilitate assessing the environmental state of marine waters, according to a JRC co-authored paper in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. Genomics is the science that uses nucleotide sequences (DNA or RNA) to analyse biological systems and several genomic approaches – such as DNA barcoding or metagenomics – can lead to more reliable taxonomic identification and faster monitoring results.

With its Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive the European Union aims to achieve 'good environmental status' (GES) of EU waters by 2020. The maintenance of biodiversity is key to reaching this goal and to ensure that marine waters are kept in good condition, accurate monitoring data is needed.

Genomic analysis methods have been continuously refined and provide quick, accurate and in-depth information of the marine environment. The paper recommends that the potential of genomics be disseminated among European-wide networks working with marine observation and maps different genomic techniques, comparing the cost and added values with traditional environmental monitoring.

DNA barcoding, for instance, consists in assigning a unique 'DNA barcode' (a short standardised DNA fragment) to a specimen or sample of a species, and comparing it against a reference database. This technique allows species names to be assigned to specimens or samples that are challenging or impossible to identify otherwise. Another example is metagenomics, which examines genetic material directly in its natural environment, no longer isolating or cloning individual species. This method is mainly used for studying communities of microbial organisms. These and other genomic tools will likely be widely used in the next-generation global marine monitoring programmes.