For most of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Galapagos was closed to the outside world. With no tourism, the local economy ground to a halt and much of the Islands’ population found themselves unemployed. It was in the midst of this crisis that Barcoding Galapagos was launched, a hugely ambitious project to catalogue the biodiversity of the Islands by sequencing DNA from species across the Archipelago. Crucially, it would do so by employing hard- hit professionals whose livelihoods had been affected by COVID-19.
In November 2020, 74 local naturalist guides, fishers, farmers and taxi drivers were recruited from almost 450 applicants. The project began with a combination of remote and in-person lessons to train them to collect, handle and process genetic samples from a range of different species, from microbes in the soil to introduced mammals on the land.
With DNA sequencers ready to run, it was time to head out into the field. In June 2021, teams of citizen scientists set out to collect samples on San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela. In August, they began to collect samples of seawater from sites in the Galapagos Marine Reserve too. In just six months, 150 locations were visited and over 1,000 DNA samples were collected, including soil, water, endemic plants like Scalesia and invasive species like the blackberry.
This massive effort will form the basis of the first genetic catalogue for Galapagos, a resource that will be of immense value in the years to come. The DNA sequences, as they roll out from the laboratories, will be compared against global databases. This will help to describe the genetic diversity of different populations from region to region and from island to island, to identify new species, assess their variability and their viability, and improve our understanding of the evolutionary process. We will be able to characterise ecological networks in a new and powerful way, one that will provide a baseline against which we can gauge the health of an ecosystem in the face of as-yet unforeseen challenges.
As we continue to catalogue the biodiversity of the Islands, it will become easier to detect the appearance of invasive species and respond to minimise their impact on the native ecology. It will be easier, too, to detect incidences of illegal wildlife trafficking. Finally, this kind of molecular approach is really the only way to get a grasp on the vast but hidden microbial diversity, the bacteria and fungi that play such a vital function in recycling nutrients on which other species rely. In short, Barcoding Galapagos will enhance both scientific research and the evidence-based conservation of the unique species that live in these precious Islands.
Barcoding Galapagos is a joint venture between the Galapagos Science Center, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Exeter University, Galapagos Conservation Trust, and the Agency for the Regulation and Control of Biosafety and Quarantine for Galapagos.
Written by Carolina Proaño and Diana Pazmiño, Galapagos Science Center – adapted by Molly Allen
This article originally featured in our Spring/Summer 2022 edition of Galapagos Matters.