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Environmental DNA reveals the diversity of Mount Everest

At 29,032 feet (8,849 m), Mt. Everest is the world’s highest mountain. Although many people go to Everest to climb, very little is known about its biodiversity.

In 2019, National Geographic and Rolex came together for the Perpetual Planet Everest Expedition, the most comprehensive scientific expedition in Everest’s history. Scientists from The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Appalachian State University led the research team. 

The experts collected environmental DNA (eDNA) samples for various water sources between 14,763 feet and 18,044 feet. Environmental DNA can be used to search for small amounts of genetic material left by organisms and is known to be more efficient than traditional surveys. This technique has previously helped scientists to study elusive marine animals such as humpback whales and Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. Samples were collected in the field using sealed cartridges and analyzed in a lab. 

The scientific team analyzed 20 liters of water and found organisms representing 187 taxonomic orders, or one-sixth of all known orders. The team was also able to identify some samples to the species level. They found DNA from microorganisms, rotifers and tardigrades, as well as from Tibetan snow cock, domestic dogs, and domestic chickens. Several sites contained mayfly DNA, an indicator species of environmental change. 

“High-alpine and aeolian environments, which have often been thought of as barren and mostly devoid of life, in fact have abundant biodiversity,” said Dr. Tracie Seimon, co-leader of the Everest biology field team. “High mountain environments including Mount Everest should be recognized as a target for sustained long-term biodiversity monitoring of high-alpine taxa to complement bioclimatic monitoring and climate change impact assessments.”

Dr. Marisa Lim of the Wildlife Conservation Society is excited about what is left to discover. “We went in search for life on the roof of the world. This is what we found. However, the story does not end here. There is more to be discovered and we hope our findings help to inform future exploration,” said Dr. Lim.

The team hopes that the eDNA inventory gathered in this study will help future scientists monitor high alpine regions in the Himalaya and inform past studies so that we may better understand how the region’s biodiversity is responding to human pressure and a changing climate.

This study is published in the journal iScience.

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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