How tracking ‘environmental DNA’ can help us understand aquatic life from afar

27 May 2020

Dr Luca Mirimin of GMIT. Image: FameLab

Dr Luca Mirimin of GMIT is investigating ways to examine marine creatures without ever needing to catch them.

After graduating with a degree in natural sciences from the University of Ferrara in Italy, Dr Luca Mirimin travelled to University College Cork to do a PhD in zoology. After stints as a postdoctoral scientist in South Africa and Ireland, he joined the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) as a lecturer in aquatic ecology.

Mirimin is also a principal investigator and project coordinator for a range of research projects on molecular ecology and conservation genetics at the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre at GMIT. He was recently a participant in the finals of the FameLab Ireland science communication competition.

‘The main driving factors that make my research outputs important are the need to protect our environment’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

For some time, I thought I followed the route of natural sciences simply by exclusion. In other words, I did not really like any of the other alternatives. But then I realised that I had a deep interest in understanding plant and animal species, and how life came about on Earth. Therefore, it was not by chance that I became passionate and enthusiastic about studying applied biology.

I am not sure where such interest comes from, but my best guess is that it came from growing up in a rural context in the north of Italy. There, I was exposed to growing vegetables and farming animals practices which I always found fascinating. I also believe that being at the right place at the right time when making certain life-changing choices has something to do with it.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Looking over all projects I have worked on up to now, I can say that the common feature is the use of genetic tools to understand and manage aquatic species. This is regardless of whether they are of commercial value – such as Atlantic salmon and cod – or of ecologic importance, such as seals, whales and dolphins.

In recent years I have become particularly interested in an emerging application of molecular biology, known as ‘environmental DNA’. This approach aims to obtain genetic information from organisms without catching or coming into direct contact with them.

This is possible because all organisms constantly release biological traces (such as cells) in their surrounding environment that can be detected simply by testing water, soil or even air samples. Since its first implementation just over 10 years ago, environmental DNA has become an increasingly used approach and has revolutionised the way we study and understand biodiversity.

My team consists of a range of enthusiastic and inquisitive students and researchers, who share the same interest as mine in using such novel tools to address a wide range of research questions. These include sustainable aquaculture production, wildlife pathogens, conservation of ice-age relic fish populations and the surveillance of marine invasive species.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The main driving factors that make my research outputs important are the need to protect our environment. In particular, aquatic ecosystems and enabling sustainable use of natural resources for seafood production.

Alongside these factors, my research creates a learning platform for students and researchers to grow academically and professionally. I also believe that many aspects of my research could serve as examples to engage with the public, such as participating in events like FameLab.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The use of molecular tools has become increasingly important with applications in virtually any field that deals with living organisms. Industries that are benefiting from my research outputs are fisheries, aquaculture and tourism.

In particular, I hope that the tools I will develop will be to enable appropriate impact assessments of human activities on our environment. This would be in addition to the sustainable use of natural resources, such as fisheries and fish and shellfish farming.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the main challenges is that sound research does not come fast and it takes time and resources to obtain meaningful outputs. Another big challenge is that the more advanced the role one occupies, the bigger the team and network of collaborators become.

In other words, managing large groups of strong and driven individuals, and collaborating as well as competing with other scientists, can be challenging. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that I love my job, but I also love my family, and sometimes it is difficult to find a balance where I can dedicate enough time to both work and personal life.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Certainly, there are many misconceptions in the field of genetics. This is because it is a hot topic that often makes news headlines and it can be difficult to tell the full story without being biased or technically imprecise.

For instance, when the word ‘genetics’ is used in the context of food production, the concept of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is the first that comes to most people’s minds. But there is so much more than this, and genetics is playing critical roles in making sure that production practices are safe and sustainable.

I guess this is one of the main challenges that researchers face when communicating to other stakeholders, including policymakers and the public. One solution is to improve our communication skills so we can expand our knowledge outside of academia.

My involvement in events such as the Baboró International Arts Festival for Children and FameLab are indeed attempts to improve my communication skills to reach out to the public.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, genetic data is gathered at unprecedented rates that extracting all information and translating it into usable form within short time periods can be challenging.

Thus, analytical and computational progress in fields such as AI and machine learning are badly needed to ensure we can maximise the outputs from such technologies.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.