Environmental Genetics

DNA collected from environmental samples—e.g., water, feces, surface swabs, or tissues— is an emerging source of information about the presence and provenance of organisms at a location.

Environmental genetics tools can provide cost-effective, non-invasive means to evaluate baseline and changing ecological conditions in natural or engineered ecosystems. Ultimately, environmental genetics can help guide business decisions, inform or support litigation, improve/optimize industrial applications, and assess regulatory compliance.

Applications of environmental genetic assessments range in scale from the microscopic: beneficial bacteria, pathogens, or harmful algae, to the macroscopic: charismatic, endangered or invasive species of insects, fish, mammals, birds, and plants.

Our team of genetic experts has complementary expertise in risk assessment, statistical analysis, fate and transport modeling, and regulatory context, allowing us to:

  • Design strategies for environmental genetic/genomic sampling
  • Interpret and review results of DNA-based assays
  • Provide industry-relevant guidance for decision making

Key questions in ecological assessment are now being addressed with genetic and genomic techniques such as quantitative PCR, high-throughput Next-Generation Sequencing, and bioinformatics.

For example:

  • What organisms are present at a location?
  • Is a species present in an area exposed to contamination?  
  • Is microbial contamination present? What is its source? 
  • Has an ecological community changed over time or following an event?
  • Does a sample contain certain genes important to ecosystem function? (e.g. genes for biodegradation, nutrient cycling, or other metabolic process)
  • Is a biological product authentic (e.g. timber and fish mislabeling or substitution fraud)?
  • Has genetic intellectual property been violated?
  • What are the ecological and human health risks of using emerging genetic tools?

Exponent’s environmental genetics team has real-world experience identifying where genetic/genomic tools can be of use, developing sampling and advanced data analysis and interpretation methods for unique applications, and developing tools for decision making. Our experts understand the potential and limitations of genetic methods and can help navigate not only production issues, but also legal and regulatory issues as they arise.

Recent Project Descriptions

Source Identification of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in fertilizers: Exponent evaluated samples of organic fertilizers and characterized the presence and absence of suspected GMOs in the product.

Gene Expression Review: Exponent investigated whether expression of genes can serve as a proxy for the overall health and function of organisms in an environment by reviewing differences in genetic expression of organisms in contaminated and uncontaminated sites.

Pathogen Detection by qPCR: Medical devices were suspected of transmitting a pathogen to patients and Exponent used genetic-based sampling for the presence of the pathogen on devices, as well as on the device production line, to identify the location where contamination was occurring.

DNA Barcoding: Fraud and contamination was suspected in consumable herbal products and Exponent evaluated the use of a DNA bar-coding approach to identify the presence of target plant species in product samples.