Exploring nature's genetic diversity

April 22, 2018

Strands of DNA



Dr. Vasco Elbrecht and Dr. Dirk Steinke at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, University of Guelph, along with their collaborators based in Germany, recently completed a study where they developed a strategy for examining the genetic diversity that exists within individual species detected in environmental samples containing many species.

In their study, they drew on a technique called DNA metabarcoding which uses genetic markers, typically to identify the different species that exist in environmental samples. Traditional approaches for identifying species, which often rely on examining an organism's physical appearance, can be very time consuming and difficult when scientists and environmental managers are interested in identifying the species over a large area, such as the species of invertebrates that live along the length of an entire river, for example. DNA metabarcoding on the other hand, can offer a relatively quick alternative.

Dr. Elbrecht, Dr. Steinke, and their collaborators used DNA metabarcoding data generated from insect sampling surveys to examine genetic diversity within species rather than between. Although the samples contained many species, they were able to observe genetic variation within individual species and also detected a pattern in some cases.  The pattern showed genetic diversity of a species of stonefly (Taeniopteryx nebulosa) and a species of caddisfly (Hydropsyche pellucidula) that followed a north-south distribution over a large geographic area.

Although their strategy needs to be further developed, the results of this study constitute an important step towards using DNA for understanding complex genetic diversity in nature. These techniques are growing in their importance for helping scientists and environmental managers monitor impacts and changes to species within ecosystems

Dr. Vasco Elbrecht is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Dr. Dirk Steinke is Associate Director responsible for Research Coordination at the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics of the University of Guelph


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Elbrecht, V., Vamos, E.E., Steinke, D., Leese, F. (2018) Estimating intraspecific genetic diversity from community DNA metabarcoding data. PeerJ, 6:e4644.