Helping preserve rare, threatened amphibians, scientists at Washington State University are launching a $1.4 million effort to unobtrusively find and study them through the environmental traces of their DNA.

Caren Goldberg.

Leading a team of researchers at WSU and partner institutions, Caren Goldberg, assistant professor in WSU’s School of the Environment, studies environmental DNA, or eDNA—genetic material sampled from soil or water rather than directly from an organism.

Supported by a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, her team is developing new eDNA techniques to reveal and understand endangered amphibians on military bases across the nation.

Drawing water from ponds and streams, Goldberg filters trace cells and tiny cellular fragments bearing DNA—genetic code from native frogs and salamanders.

Those samples not only identify the animals who live in these waters, they hold the potential to tell scientists much more—secrets that can help find and protect threatened wild species and allow wildlife and people to more easily coexist.

As predators of pest insects, and as prey themselves for other wildlife, amphibians keep our environment in balance. Compounds in their skin could hold the key for future cures for cancer and bacterial infection. However, with roughly a third of the world’s amphibian species under threat of extinction, many of these animals are becoming hard to find.

“Too often, searching for rare amphibians means that you’re turning over rocks and other parts of their habitat to look for them,” she said. “Although we move those rocks and plants back where they were, you never quite recreate that microhabitat. Using eDNA is a way to find rare species without destroying their homes.”

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