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Wilderlab is an environmental DNA (eDNA) testing lab based in Wellington, New Zealand. The company's easy-to-use eDNA sampling kits and lab-testing service allow more New Zealanders to discover the full range of species living in and around streams.
Wilderlab is one of the most promising solutions for improving New Zealand's water quality. It uses science to verify the complexities of ecosystem changes and provides non-intrusive information about species living in a habitat without locating them.
As living creatures move through their environment, they shed small genetic material called DNA. By filtering this material out of the water, it is possible to identify organisms living in an area providing scientific evidence to help understand the health of the water and the taonga species it supports. While this type of testing cannot tell conservationists how many eels may be living in a local stream, it can detect species up to four kilometers away and provide information about the health of the habitat.
Wilderlab contributes to three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- Goal 15: Life on Land. Wilderlab’s eDNA kits and testing services help protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage and improve stream health, preserve biodiversity, and can be used to inform remediation of ecosystems.
- Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation. Clean Water and Sanitation. The world’s water-related ecosystems are being degraded, and in New Zealand, four out of five Kiwis are concerned about freshwater quality (StatsNZ, 2019). Wilderlab provides the kits and testing capabilities to help Kiwis to understand their waterways better to protect and improve water quality for future generations.
- Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being. Wilderlab’s ecosystem-scale analysis services can be used as an integrated outcome tool for pollutants and biological sources of contamination to identify how the ecosystem responds.
Wilderlab was founded in 2019 in Wellington to make eDNA sampling easy, affordable, and accessible. "When I did eDNA training, it took up to a month from taking a sample to getting data out the other end. Now someone in Nelson can take a sample on Wednesday, we'll sequence it on Thursday, and they'll have the results on Friday. There's a hell of a lot of science that goes into that, and being able to turn around results in 24 hours is pretty game-changing. It's breaking down barriers to accessing this technology." says Shaun.
Freshwater streams are increasingly under stress. At the heart of this problem is that it is challenging to make management decisions when you cannot measure biotic impacts concerning ecosystem health. Using a syringe, any kiwi can go to a stream, squeeze water through a filter that collects the tiny fragments of eDNA, apply a preservative, enter details online, and send it to Wilderlab just in the regular post. Wilderlab's scientists analyze short sections of genetic code as "barcodes" and match eDNA found in the samples to a reference database, which allows them to identify the species in an area.
eDNA can be used to examine biological networks that underpin the health stream environment. eDNA is a promising tool for helping land owners make better management decisions, track and observe tangible outcomes to restoration efforts and improve New Zealand's water quality and the taonga species it supports.
In 2016, founder Shaun Wilkinson was awarded a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct eDNA surveys on coral reefs in East Timor. "When I returned from Timor and realized there was no one offering a commercial eDNA service that the general public could use, I took a chance that people would like one – and people have embraced it."
"Whole ecosystem monitoring is something we've been trying to achieve as a country for a long time, but how you do that is easier said than done," says Wilkinson.
Convinced that for eDNA to be successful in New Zealand, kits needed to be compact, lightweight, not require cold storage, and be able to be taken into the 'wilderness' to gather samples from remote areas, and it was this that inspired the company name.
"I wanted an eDNA sampling kit that would easily fit in a backpack instead of the old methods with bulky equipment that require more manpower," added Shaun.
"The idea was to create an easy, simple, and accessible way of eDNA testing that would encourage people to get involved and interested in their local environment."
Wilderlab’s approach has been simple – help people do eDNA at places that are special to them. Founder Shaun believes that if eDNA could capture the interest and imagination of New Zealanders, it might accelerate the change needed in how streams and broader ecosystems are monitored.
To date, Wilderlab has processed over 23,000 eDNA samples, detecting over 14,000 unique species from 18 different countries and, at the time of writing this story, is close to seeing 2 million unique DNA sequences.
There are several short-term effects of using Wilderlabs eDNA, including reducing biodiversity monitoring costs, an noninvasive testing method, data transferability, and there is minimal health and safety risk (kids can safely test water).
Long-term benefits still need to be fully realized. Still, they could be used in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management policy setting to evidence improvement or further stream degradation. Internationally, major environmental initiatives such as the European Union-funded DNAqua-Net project have armed researchers and academics with the legal, regulatory, policy, and quality control frameworks that an eDNA toolkit must comply with.
The Lakes380 Project in New Zealand has similar aspirations, a ten-year project hoping to enrich our understanding of the environmental, social, and cultural histories of 10% of Aotearoa’s lakes. Long term, these programs leveraging eDNA could become the catalyst needed to connect policy and the environmental management space.
Wilderlab's commitment to protecting New Zealand and contributing to the early detection of numerous biosecurity threats by enabling the monitoring of thousands of kilometers of New Zealand's waterways was recognized in last year’s Biosecurity Awards. Wilderlab won the Mondiale VGL Innovation and the Supreme Award at the 2022 New Zealand Biosecurity Awards.
Amy Gault says, “Early detection of invasive species is crucial for containing their spread and means managers can more quickly identify and respond to these threat species.” This exciting opportunity leverages eDNA metabarcoding to scan for problem species we may not even be looking for yet! Professor Neil Gemmell from the University of Otago leads an extensive pest mammal detection eDNA project with international collaborators and Zero Invasive Pests and Wilderlab. MBIE funds this project and is researching how eDNA could be used to understand distributions, densities, and movements of pest mammal populations. Taking river samples might help pest management groups provide more information about the species present in an area and further information about how their abundance or distribution changes with pest management efforts. This will be especially important for areas that are difficult to survey on foot and those with very low population densities.
Another noteworthy story is how students from Fiordland College, working with The Kids Restore the Kepler program, discovered the endangered fish species Gollum galaxias (Galaxias gollumoides) in the Ewe Burn stream. This rare fish species is named after the "my precious" creature from Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings and are not found anywhere else on earth except Southland and Otago.
According to StatsNZ, 75% of our native freshwater fish are threatened with or at risk of extinction, and almost half of New Zealand's lakes are in poor ecological health. But Wilderlab is committed to doing something about that and is already leveraging eDNA data and putting it into a form that is easy for Kiwis to understand.
A significant business impact is how Wilderlab makes eDNA data interpretation easy and available for many to see and respond to. For readers unfamiliar with interpreting lab or water testing results, E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorus, etc., typically send results back in scientific language that the reader needs help understanding. Data is meaningless unless it helps those who need it make decisions that have a measurable impact. When results cannot be easily understood, testing becomes an expensive matter of compliance. Wilderlab understands this dilemma and has pioneered new ways to generate value by providing more visual and engaging ways for people to look at the results and derive meaning that is important to them. This includes diagrams like the ‘Wheel of Life’ to visualize the biodiversity and an ecological health rating called the TICI, which helps connect people and data to draw biological insights to action in a fast and scalable way.
The taxon-independent community index, or TICI, is a score that can help customers gauge and track the ecological health of their waterways. As it includes information from across the ecosystem, it is a more robust and holistic way to assess and communicate a channel's environmental health quickly. It can be easily understood like a barometer.
Wilderlabs secured the majority market share of DNA testing in New Zealand, attracting and retaining fifteen staff who are improving business processes to enhance conservation efficiency and productivity and creating additional value through existing products and new services. eDNA as an innovation benefits Wilderlab because the testing is scientifically robust and can increase turnover and improve profitability by servicing councils, universities, government agencies, environmental consultants, community groups, and farmers.
Regarding how eDNA benefits society and the environment, it is evident Wilderlabs are innovating ways to restore biodiversity. Wilderlab is using technology and scientific data to extract conservation data so every one of us can play a role in preserving the ecosystems we interact with directly or indirectly.
Wilderlab's impact on society and the environment is exploring technological solutions to address New Zealand’s poor stream health report card. By engaging with leading research institutions, catchment groups, regional councils, the Department of Conservation (DOC), and local farmers, Wilderlab can help better measure the impacts we all have on receiving environments. The ongoing efforts to sequence more biodata from New Zealand and monitor it is expected to become even more valuable in the future.
"What you can't see, you can't save," says Shaun, and that is what my experience has been on a farm. It's rewarding when farmers on the East Coast of the North Island show me their eDNA results and tell me how they plan to improve their ecosystems to preserve their taonga, stream species or hope to find new, more sensitive species returning by the next testing cycle. Whole-ecosystem monitoring and engaging all key stakeholders is wildly valuable in achieving better biodiversity outcomes, and Wilderlab is helping ensure everyone can come to the table.
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Amy Gault, Freshwater and Community Science Lead
Wilderlab is an award-winning New Zealand environmental DNA (eDNA) testing lab. Founded in 2019 by Shaun Wilkinson, Wilderlab has developed compact and easy-to-use DNA sampling kits and an ecosystem-scale testing panel that can generate information for various environmental applications, including monitoring ecosystem health, biosecurity threats, conservation, and education.