True confessions time: I love me some cryptids—love, love, love them. I watched In Search Of… obsessively when I was a kid, and read everything I could find about any and all creatures that I could find. Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape, the Abominable Snowman, Ogopogo, Champ, the Beast of Gevaudan, the Loveland Frog, and—of course—the Loch Ness Monster. Because I also loved me some dinosaurs, the idea that there might be a plesiosaur living in Scotland was exciting. These days, I know enough to be skeptical about all of them. Where are the bodies? How do groups of large animals avoid detection. Or, if there’s only one, how did it live so long. But I still love reading about them, and imagining what they might be like, and news articles about them still catch my eye. So, it shouldn’t be any shock that the following article caught my eye when it showed up in my feed:
I clicked the link in the feed, and was actually startled by what I read:
But now a scientist is hoping to use cutting-edge dino-DNA technology to determine once and for all whether the Loch Ness Monster exists or not.
Professor Neil Gemmell wants to solve the mystery by looking for traces of unusual DNA in the water of the loch.
The study would involve gathering water samples from various locations at different depths of Loch Ness, before analysing them using the same techniques police forensic teams use at crime scenes.
Oh, yes. Yes it is.
Tell me more!
OK, where to start? Well, Professor Neil Gemmell, according to the University of Otago website, has “an Honours degree in Biochemistry at Victoria University of Wellington” and completed his PhD “at Australia’s La Trobe University, researching population and evolutionary genetics in platypus.” Currently, he’s “the AgResearch Chair in Reproduction and Genomics at the University of Otago. He is also Director of the associated Centre for Reproduction and Genomics, based at Invermay. He leads the Evolutionary Genomics Group, which applies recent advances in genomic technology to the fields of ecology, population, conservation and evolutionary biology.” He’s also the team leader of the Gemmell Lab and teaches GENE 360 (Special Topics in Genetics) and GENE 411 (Current Topics in Genetics) at the university.
So, call me crazy, but it certainly sounds like he’s got the credentials to head up a project like this. But what, exactly, is the project? To answer that, let me quote the article quoting his description:
“Our group uses so-called environmental DNA to monitor marine biodiversity. From a few litres of water, we can detect thousands of species ranging from whales, sharks to plankton.
“Essentially all large organism lose cells from their skin, or digestive system, or whatever, as they move through their environment.
“New genomic technology is sensitive enough to pick this up even when rare, and we can use comparisons to large sequence databases that span the majority of known living things. If there was anything unusual in the Loch, these DNA tools would likely pick up that evidence.”
Professor Gemmell described it pretty well in the above quote, I think. But let’s dig a little deeper.
Human beings shed anywhere from 0.001 to 0.003 ounces (0.028 to 0.085 grams) of skin flakes per hour, and the average cell is estimated to weigh one nanogram. So, since a nanogram is 0.000000001 grams, that means you shed between 28,000,000 and 85,000,000 skin cells per hour. Each of these cells contains DNA, and you’re leaving that DNA everywhere you go.
(For what it’s worth, though, the common belief that 70% to 80% of the dust in your house it skin cells doesn’t appear to be true.)
All animals (and, presumably, other living organisms as well) shed cells in a similar fashion, and the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) is becoming more and more common as a way to detect and monitor species in an environment. It’s used in conservation efforts, for instance, as a way to find new species and also to check for the presence of invasive species. Generally, a sample of the environment (usually soil or water, although air filters are also used upon occasion) is taken and preserved in some fashion. DNA samples are then extracted from the sample, purified and preserved, and then put through a PCR reaction and then qPCR analysis. The results are compared to DNA databases of known species to see what is currently living in the environment. The US Geological Survey website has more on the uses of eDNA and field sampling techniques if you’re interested.
What does this mean for Loch Ness and its famous monster?
Sadly, probably not much. The Otago Daily Times, when they wrote on the topic, stated that this is currently just a proposal. Professor Gemmell hasn’t applied for any funding, as of April 4, 2017, at least, and I couldn’t find anything later indicating that he had. So, until and unless he does apply for funding and gets it, it’s just an interesting way to raise awareness of a really cool environmental research method that people don’t know much about.
But, let’s speculate. What could happen if Professor Gemmell got the funding, and he and his team went to Loch Ness and ran these tests? Could we prove conclusively that Nessie was or wasn’t real?
The short answer is: no.
Oh, come on!
No, seriously. Here’s what the USGS says:
Like other field-based sampling, results of eDNA detection may have some inaccuracy, and replicate samples are required to estimate occupancy while accounting for uncertainty. In other words, not detecting DNA of a species does not mean it is absent. The lower limits of detection for species are currently unknown and likely vary depending on the species and its density, size, behavior, and habitat.
The study, if it happens, won’t really end the debate over whether or not there’s a monster in the Loch. If we find unknown DNA, all it will mean is that there’s something unknown in the Loch. A monster? Possibly. But it could be a new species of fungus, or a newt. And if we don’t, then it could just mean that we didn’t detect it—so the believers will keep looking, and hoaxers will keep floating toy submarines with rubber sea monster heads out into the lake. But some interesting science will also have been done, and that’s still a great reason to hope that Professor Gemmell pursues this idea.