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INESC TEC researchers collect DNA samples in the Arctic

A group of INESC TEC researchers was recently in the Arctic collecting environmental DNA samples in extreme conditions. The team used a technology called biosampler, which facilitates the task of biologists who will then analyse the samples. The biosampler was coupled to a robot that allowed the autonomous operation of the two Portuguese technologies. The researchers returned to Portugal with samples, collected in different points of the Arctic - now under a laboratory analysis.

17th October 2023

The biosampler is a Portuguese technology developed by the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC) and the Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR). The technology has been evolving over the years of collaboration between both entities; more recently, it was tested in another extreme environment, descending to 15 meters deep in the cold waters of the melting glaciers located in the Svalbard fjords - within the scope of the Connect2Oceans and MicroArctic projects, both funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT).

The water was collected at Kongsfjorden, and the INESC TEC researchers carried out their work at the Ny-Ålesund Research Station (Norway), the northernmost research station in the world. These facilities operate throughout the year, facilitating the continuity of research projects and long-term observation work, allowing to monitor, understand and explain Arctic systems and global changes - as mentioned on the station's website.

Besides validating the biosampler, the team of INESC TEC researchers (Alfredo Martins, Ana Paula Lima, Carlos Almeida, Francisco Carneiro, José Miguel Almeida, and Pedro André) who travelled to the Arctic aim to further explore the existing technology. In this sense, they coupled the biosampler to the IRIS robot, developed by INESC TEC. This action allowed the autonomous collection of samples by researchers, at different stations of the monitoring programme.

"The biosampler is a sensor shaped like a cylinder, which we were able to program to collect samples. It has several benefits, particularly when compared to traditional collection methods, which are manual and involve collecting samples in Niskin bottles - the contents of which are filtered only in the laboratory. The fact that we coupled the biosampler to IRIS, with both operating autonomously at that depth and temperature, was also another engineering challenge", explained Alfredo Martins, a researcher at INESC TEC.

The possibility of scheduling the collection times and dates, the collection of a greater number of samples, the reduction of contamination errors (since the filtration is done on site), and the fact that samples are prepared to laboratory analysis are some of the main benefits.

"The samples collected by the biosampler and the standard manual method are currently at CIIMAR for analysis. The idea is to extract and sequence the eDNA to evaluate the autonomous system’s ability to assess the biodiversity of remote environments. This technology will revolutionise the current biomonitoring in marine ecosystems in the Arctic Ocean, aiming to understand the impact of climate change on these biological communities", explained Catarina Magalhães, a researcher at CIIMAR. 

The researchers set a two-year goal of operating this technology at a depth of 1.000 meters. Until then, the actions taking place in extreme environments, e.g., the Arctic, will continue to require human support - namely the collection of samples at more than 40 meters deep (current limit). However, the biosampler is expected to support both the depth and temperature conditions necessary to overcome said challenges. 


The researchers mentioned in this news piece are associated with INESC TEC and ISEP.