Neha Acharya-Patel

Neha Acharya-Patel


Current Research

PhD Candidate with the Helbing Lab at the University of Victoria

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is DNA isolated from environmental samples such as a scoop of water. It refers to the tiny bits of animal and plant DNA that are floating around in the seawater. This DNA can answer important questions about marine ecosystems by allowing scientist to “see the invisible”.   In habitats, where traditional biomonitoring methods are difficult to employ, eDNA provides a powerful alternative. Today, the oceans are stressed; they are susceptible to warming, acidification, deoxygenation, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Developing innovative techniques like eDNA to assess marine health can help us make better informed decisions to protect our oceans. I am fascinated by the intersection of genomics and marine conservation; developing tools to address this is exciting work!

Monitoring pollution using indicator benthic invertebrate

Outfall sites are huge sources of sediment load and pollution along urban environments. When this pollution enters the marine environment, it causes a large spike of nutrients. Bacteria, algae, and other organisms will proliferate in these conditions and as a byproduct will also consume all the surrounding oxygen. These areas of anoxia are inhospitable to most organisms. However, there are certain species that can tolerate these conditions and therefore the community composition of polluted areas will shift to favour these “indicator” species25. In collaboration with Biologica Environmental Services, we are working on methods to detect and quantify these indicator species using eDNA to therefore extrapolate information regarding the presence and impacts of organic pollution on the marine environment.

I presented on this work at the Fourth ICES PICES Early Career Scientist Conference in St. Johns, Newfoundland.

Tracking the distribution of the endangered Olympia oyster

The Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida) is the only native oyster along the coast of British Columbia. It was commercially harvested until a near collapse of the population in the 1950s. Since then, the lack of commercial pressure has allowed populations to somewhat stabilise. However, this species is highly sensitive to the increases in anthropogenic pressures apparent in the coastal, estuarine environments where they reside. It has now been listed as ‘Special Concern’ under both the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). As this species currently occurs in low densities in a sporadic distribution along the British Columbia coastline it is a great candidate for biomonitoring via environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling. In collaboration with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) we are working in Barkley Sound to establish eDNA monitoring as a useful way to keep track of this important animal.

Using targeted and community-based eDNA methods to monitor rockfish biodiversity

Rockfish of the genus Sebastes are one of the groups that have been declining over the past decades, largely in part to the rise of poorly regulated commercial and recreational fisheries alongside anthropogenic climate change. They have been a culturally important food fish for First Nations for millennia, and they are considered a “flagship” species meaning that their conservation confers protection to associated habitats and species. To address these declines a network of Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) has been established along the British Columbia Coastlines. However, like all protected areas they need to be monitored to assure efficacy. By using eDNA alongside traditional methods like SCUBA and fishing surveys the scope and frequency of monitoring can be greatly increased. I have partnered with the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA), who have been doing dive surveys in these regions for the past decade. Ideally, we want to establish eDNA as a monitoring tool that can also be integrated into existent community-based monitoring programs. This work was done in the territory of the Kitasoo/X’ais x’ais Nation with the permission and logistical support of the Kitasoo/X’ais X’ais Stewardship authority.

I presented on this work at the International Temperate Reef Symposium in Hobart, Tasmania, at the Fifth International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC5) in Vancouver, British Columbia, and at the 2023 Pathway to Increase Standards and Competency of eDNA Surveys (PISCeS) International Conference in Guelph, Ontario. 

Past Research

Studying shark hearts with the Milsom Lab at the University of British Columbia

For my undergraduate thesis I worked on a project examining cardiorespiratory interactions in a model elasmobranch. This research shed light on the physiological mechanisms underpinning the efficiency of oxygen uptake in the evolutionarily distinct cartilaginous fishes. It was an amazing project to introduce me to the world of scientific research and our work was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

I presented on this work at the 2016 Pacific Ecology and Evolution Conference in Bamfield, British Columbia.