Combining genomics, AI and robotics - a new tool for biodiversity science

doi.org/10.1111/1755-0998.13567
30 January 2024

Last year, the Centre for Biodiversity Analysis hosted Rudolf Meier from the Center for Integrative Biodiversity Discovery at Berlin’s Museum fur Naturkunde for discussions on “DiversityScanner”.

The novel technology combines robotics, machine learning and the latest high-throughput genomic sequencing to scan, classify and quantify invertebrate taxa from large mass samples, at a price and scale not possible with current methods.

This year, our aim is to continue to work with Meier and his collaborators to bring this technology and associated workflows to Australia to build capacity and aid the monitoring and discovery of Australia’s invertebrate biodiversity.

As the initial step towards this national capability, we plan to establish a facility to which researchers and managers can bring samples for processing and training and to experiment and co-develop projects.

The new Australian Biodiversity Discovery Facility will build on existing expertise at ANU, University of Canberra and CSIRO in high-throughput genetic barcoding and image analysis and bring together geneticists, ecologists, taxonomists, computer scientists and engineers to adapt this technology to the Australian context and work to expand its application.

"The little things that run the world" Edward O. Wilson (1987)

With strides being made to improve Australia’s track record in biodiversity loss by 2030, and the establishment of the new Nature Repair Bill, it is imperative that we begin to account for the 95% of animal diversity that is currently largely neglected in biodiversity surveys and monitoring.

Invertebrates are widely regarded as powerful monitoring tools in environmental management because of their great abundance and diversity, functional importance, sensitivity to change, and ease of sampling. But samples typically include many undiscovered and undescribed species, presenting a particular challenge for biodiversity analysis. The taxonomic expertise and time required, and subsequent costs, to process samples makes their inclusion simply impractical for most environmental monitoring and assessment.

As herbivores, predators, parasitoids, decomposers, and pollinators, invertebrates disperse seeds, control populations, cycle nutrients, maintain soil structure and fertility, pollinate plants, and are a major prey source for other taxa. This new technology will significantly advance the documenting of their tremendous diversity and abundance, and allow these critical ecosystem services to finally be considered in on-ground conservation and rehabilitation efforts.

The technology will also achieve a step change in the rate at which new species are discovered and described (a key goal of goal of the Decadal Plan for Taxonomy), and has considerable potential for biosecurity monitoring and other research and management areas dealing with large, intractable samples of small taxa with high species diversity and abundance.

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To establish and manage the new Facility we are looking to appoint a Senior Research Officer. Applications close 28th February 2024.