DNA database to track bushfire impact to local wildlife

Andrzej KIlian, Geoff Crisp, Owen Atkin and Ash Balaretnaraja. Picture: Supplied
Andrzej KIlian, Geoff Crisp, Owen Atkin and Ash Balaretnaraja. Picture: Supplied

The impact of the devastating Black Summer bushfires on native plants and wildlife will be able to be tracked, thanks to a new database being created in Canberra.

A DNA database of local flora and fauna is being developed as part of a collaboration between the University of Canberra, the Australian National University and Canberra company Diversity Arrays Technology.

The $3 million database will draw upon several thousand genomic sequences that have been gathered by Diversity Arrays Technology and will be available to researchers and government bodies to track the make-up of ecosystems.

Among the first pieces of work where the database will be used will be research tracking which plant and animal species have died as a result of the Black Summer bushfires and which have made a full recovery.

Diversity Arrays Technology director Andrzej Kilian said the platform would help to track changes to an area's ecosystems and how environmental impacts in those areas could be managed.

"Researchers have collected data [in fire-affected areas] before the fires and they have now returned to the same locations and re-sampled those same locations," he said.

"With the database, they can look for and compare new genetic information for wildlife populations in different area and see if that's similar to what lived there before the fires."

Dr Kilian said with such a large amount of plants and animals in the database, the genetic information within could help to repopulate plants and animals in environments where numbers could be dwindling.

"If you want to repopulate a frog population, you can't just take a random frog somewhere, you want to make sure something has evolved in a similar environment," he said.

"Genomic data from plants and animals can be powerful when it comes to managing our environments, however, if we combine it with other environmental data and apply the latest advances in big data analytics, then the understanding we can generate is significantly magnified."

While previous attempts to map the DNAs of plant and animal species could have taken years, technological advances has meant genomic sequences could be developed in a matter of days or even hours.

The database will also be used to help resource companies help map the local ecology of areas they will be working in to meet environmental obligations.

Deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra Geoff Crisp said the database represented a large step forward for researchers working in the area and had the potential to expand even further.

"We've seen after the bushfires that some species got decimated, but if we don't have the sequencing available, we don't know what we have lost," he said.

"By sequencing different species we can know if any species have been lost but sequence could also be used in the future.

"We can map out if there's any changes with the environment and how that is affecting species."

Owen Atkin, the director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology at ANU, said the new database was a treasure trove for researchers.

"We can see applications to the database in understanding how rapid climate change impacts on species in the composition of their ecosystem across the country," he said.

"We can see how they can be managed so they aren't lost."

This story DNA database to track bushfire impact to local wildlife first appeared on The Canberra Times.