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Environmental RNA as a Tool for Marine Community Biodiversity Assessments

Microscopic organisms are often overlooked in traditional diversity assessments due to the difficulty of identifying them based on morphology.

is a method for rapidly identifying organisms where Environmental DNA (eDNA) is used as a template. However, legacy DNA is problematically detected from organisms no longer in the environment during sampling. Environmental RNA (eRNA), which is only produced by living organisms, can also be collected from environmental samples and used for metabarcoding.

The aim of this study was to determine differences in community composition and diversity between eRNA and eDNA templates for metabarcoding. Using mesocosms containing field-collected communities from an estuary, RNA and DNA were co-extracted from sediment, libraries were prepared for two loci (18S and COI), and sequenced using an Illumina MiSeq. Results show a higher number of unique sequences detected from eRNA in both markers and higher α-diversity compared to eDNA. Significant differences between eRNA and eDNA for all β-diversity metrics were also detected. This study is the first to demonstrate community differences detected with eRNA compared to eDNA from an estuarine system and illustrates the broad applications of eRNA as a tool for assessing benthic community diversity, particularly for environmental conservation and management applications.

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