A DNA testing service designed to measure and map fauna in freshwater was recognised at Fieldays, winning the Growth and Scale Award at the event’s Innovation Awards.
Using a water sample collected by the farmer in testing kits, Wilderlab can determine fish and insect species, fungi, plants, mammals and bacteria using eDNA technology.
The Wellington-based business was established in 2019 by scientist Shaun Wilkinson and has since grown to a team of 20.
The technology used by Wilderlab has been around for years, but had been mainly confined to the research lab, he said.
“What our main value add was that we took it out of the research lab and into the world. We made it really accessible.”
Wilkinson said there is a huge effort to clean up waterways and understand their ecological health, and this is the only technology available to fill that gap at scale. Chemical testing of waterways is well established, but DNA testing less so.
“What has been missing was that biological side.”
Wilkinson said landowners can use the testing kits to discover if they have threatened species on the property that may need protecting as well as invasive species such as the freshwater Gold Clam, recently discovered in the Waikato River.
“Where I do think it has a lot of value for the ag sector is stream health,” he said.
Water samples are collected and pushed through a filter within the sample holder several times. A preserver is then added to preserve the DNA within.
The sample is mailed back and analysed, identifying what species are found and their abundance, and a report is sent to the customer.
A farmer who has a waterway running through their farm would typically take samples at each end of the river and use the data to determine the impact the farm is having on the waterway.
Wilderlab has also developed a TICI (Taxon Independent Community Index) – an ecological score that takes all of the species data and condenses it into a number. Each species identified is given a health value and the average is then taken.
“This number tells you what condition your stream is in,” he said.
The sample score on show at Fieldays measured 91 out of 200 – an average score for a lowland pastoral stream in New Zealand.
“The theoretical maximum is 200 but the actual maximum we would ever get is 140,” he said.
In contrast, a sample taken from the Ruahine Ranges would have a much higher score due to it being in an area less disturbed by development.
Having that number can also act as a goal setter for improving stream health, he said.
Wilderlab’s testing results have also become part of the NZ Farm Assurance Programme Plus, with farms needing an E-DNA sample to receive a gold rating. It has massively boosted the service as farmers send in yearly water samples to be eligible for the accreditation.
Wilkinson said local government has also shown a keen interest in using the service after the changes to the NPS in freshwater in 2020 meant councils had to find new tools to meet the statement’s reporting requirements.
“We do tens of thousands of samples per year for them.”