What's living in the River Yare?

7 July 2020

Picture: Ned Peel, PhD Student in the Leggett Group taking samples from River Yare in Norfolk.
Image Caption

Picture: Ned Peel, PhD Student in the Leggett Group taking samples from River Yare in Norfolk.

Rivers are the lifeblood of civilisation. It's easy to see why so many of the world's major cities were built around waterways and their fertile, alluvial plains, and Norwich is no different. Protecting the biodiversity of river ecosystems is critical, which is why the Leggett Group at EI has been dipping below the surface of the River Yare.

Rivers are hugely important ecosystems that support a wide range of life - from small mammals, such as otters and water voles, to the miniscule algae which form the basis of the food chain. This in turn allows fish, such as salmon, to thrive and provide, ultimately, for us.

Getting a picture of biodiversity in rivers was once a long and laborious task, requiring many days’ worth of observation and sampling. Now, with the latest DNA sequencing technologies, that’s no longer the case.

The Leggett Group at Earlham Institute has been part of a large international effort pushing the boundaries of current technology and knowledge in order to find out what makes up river biodiversity from the simplest of methods - a sample of water.

In that water sample are all the clues we need about what lives there. The DNA signatures of each and every organism present - either because they’re really tiny and fit in the tube or they’re a lot bigger and leave behind genetic traces in faeces, saliva, or decomposing leaves - can be read using the nifty, hand-held, portable and real-time nanotechnology of the Oxford Nanopore MinION.

Dr Richard Leggett, Group leader at EI and a member of the global MinION Analysis and Reference Consortium (MARC), which organised the project, said: “To be able to detect the DNA of pretty much any species in just a sample of river water shows the great power and potential of technology today. 

“We can use this knowledge to explore environments worldwide and tackle a number of important challenges, from food security to biodiversity and soil health.”

To read the next part of the article, including what the researchers found in the river, please visit the Earlham Institute Website: