XPRIZE VOICES: Dr. Meredith Palmer, eDNA

Dec 21 2023

Dr. Meredith Palmer is a conservation technologist who has spent her career studying and monitoring species in the wild. This work has brought her around the world to work in different ecosystems, with different organizations, and with new and innovative technologies. 

One of these technologies, eDNA has been an important tool for teams competing in XPRIZE Rainforest as they work to monitor biodiversity. We sat down with Dr. Palmer to learn more about her career, conservation technology, eDNA, her work as an eDNA consultant for XPRIZE, and how we can better monitor and protect biodiversity and natural landscapes. 

XPRIZE: Can you tell us how you got into working in conservation and what your work looks like on a day-to-day basis?

Dr. Meredith Palmer: I've always wanted to be a scientist, an ecologist, a conservationist. There has never really been a different option. I started out studying large carnivores. I used to do quite a bit of work in Africa, working with the Serengeti Lion Project, doing lion conservation. I've worked in North America doing wolf conservation, gone back into African ecosystems and done quite a bit of work with ecosystem restoration. We’d work to figure out how to stick all those large carnivores back into systems where they'd gone locally extinct without causing those ecosystems to collapse. 

And as part of all of that work I relied very, very heavily on new technical tools to monitor multiple individuals of multiple different species interacting together across these really broad and dynamic landscapes. My day-to-day work involves setting up and using data from camera traps and from acoustic monitors and from eDNA sampling, drone data, satellite data, all different kinds of sensor data to monitor all of these different interacting species to see who's out there, their population size, abundance, health, and assess changes in these parameters due to climate change and other human-driven influences on these populations and systems.

XPRIZE: What convinced you that technology was something that should be integrated in conservation and could help across all of these challenges?

Dr. Meredith Palmer: I've been in conservation for a long time. When I started out in conservation, I was very much boots on the ground with my binoculars and my field notebook, running around, chasing one lion at a time, trying to understand that individual's behavior and how they fit into the bigger picture. But we can't do that anymore.

Global change, climate change, human-driven land use change, all of these negative impacts on biodiversity are happening so quickly. We have to be just as rapid in our ability to evaluate, assess, and derive inference on the health of these ecosystems, who's in these ecosystems, and how they're doing in order to come up with conservation interventions that are going to actually have the impact that we want them to have.

Being on the ground running around after individual lions is not enough data. It's not a big enough picture of how the system is doing. It’s not the volume of data that we need in order to design our conservation interventions. Bringing technology into this work has really unlocked our ability to monitor multiple individuals, multiple interacting species across vast landscapes, and collect this data at really fine time scales so that we can monitor these changes through time.

There's a whole variety of tools out there that we're using. eDNA is a big new exciting one, but also wildlife tracking collars, camera traps, and acoustic monitoring. They can give us a rapid and detailed understanding of entire wildlife communities with extraordinarily little effort compared to traditional methods for understanding biodiversity and how ecosystems are doing.

XPRIZE: Can you give an explanation of what exactly eDNA is?

Dr. Meredith Palmer: The “E” in eDNA stands for environmental. So environmental DNA is genetic material that's shed from living organisms and gets deposited in the environment. So as we move around, we're constantly shedding little bits of ourselves that contain DNA: skin cells, hair, mucus, even feces and urine contain DNA. 

This DNA sheds from organisms and then gathers in the environment. It gathers in water, it gathers in soil, on the surfaces of leaves, in snow, in the air, and all of these different environmental substrates. So scientists can go out and we can sample all of these materials. We can take a few liters of water or some scoops of soil and from these samples extract and amplify the DNA.

We can then sequence those DNA strands in order to understand whose DNA that is, and what animals are in the environment where that sample was collected.

XPRIZE: Does that give you a greater insight than traditional biodiversity tracking measures? 

Dr. Meredith Palmer: It's a really excellent tool for very specific use cases. The primary insight that eDNA provides us is an indication of species presence. We use it as an indicator that within a certain range of where the sample was collected, this species was present. 

eDNA, also degrades with time, so new research is exploring how the state of the eDNA molecule could be used to narrow down the window within which that animal was there. What eDNA doesn't tell us is animal behavior. If I was watching an animal or using a camera trap, I could maybe get an indication of the size of that population or the health of that population. eDNA doesn't give us that level of detail, yet.

I think there's some interesting innovation that could be pushed in terms of how much information we can pull out of these DNA strands, but we're not there yet. eDNA is good for answering the question, is this species there or not? Which makes it an excellent tool for these rapid biodiversity assessments where we need to understand: is this rare species here? Is this invasive species here? How many species are here? 

We're entering a stage right now where everyone is being held more accountable for their impact on biodiversity. Governments, businesses, corporations, a lot more people care about biodiversity than just conservationists. People are really turning towards us to innovate these new tools that let us go in, understand who's in the ecosystem, the state of the ecosystem, and present that information back out to the world. eDNA is turning out to be a really ideal tool for doing those kinds of studies.

XPRIZE: How can conservationists working in this field also work with local communities to make sure that we're empowering them with this technology to help conserve these ecosystems?

Dr. Meredith Palmer: This is one of the reasons why eDNA is such an exciting biomonitoring tool for me. It is so accessible that we can put this tool into the hands of local communities and really give ownership and stewardship of understanding biodiversity to the people on the ground.

It’s very straightforward to collect eDNA samples. You don't need a PhD in order to collect really rigorous, robust data from an ecosystem. You can go in and train local scientists, train local community members, in these eDNA collection methods and people can go out and collect robust data themselves.

The process of extracting information from eDNA is increasingly becoming more cost effective. What we're seeing, we're really driving this in XPRIZE Rainforest, eDNA can be processed in the field. So some of our teams are developing backpack labs and creating tools and equipment for processing this eDNA that doesn't need refrigeration, a constant power source, or a giant laboratory in order to extract these DNA samples.

You don't need to ship or export your samples to a different country to access the information in your biodiversity survey. We can really put the entire process of going out and collecting these samples, processing these samples, and evaluating biodiversity into the hands of local communities. 

I get really passionate about this. eDNA is really an ideal tool for what we would call participatory research design. It’s so cost-effective and easy to use and something that can be fully deployed in the field. We don't need to come in as outside experts, parachute in, impose our views on how a survey like this should be conducted. We can now put these tools in the hands of local communities. It enables people to draw on their own ecological knowledge, articulate their own views, and design their own conservation monitoring approach. 

There are so few tech tools in this space that are simple and cost-effective enough for us to really do this and put the data stewardship back into the hands of the people whose local biodiversity we're exploring using these methods.

XPRIZE: Is incorporating local communities and their knowledge of the local areas with more traditional conservation efforts and technology becoming more common? 

Dr. Meredith Palmer: I think it should be. Are we there yet? I don't know. 

If we’re not careful, technology can broaden the gaps between the global north and the global south. If you're coming in with a shiny new monitoring tool that costs tens of thousands of dollars and requires an enormous degree of technical literacy to operate, then we're just broadening these divides between people.

That's something that's been really exciting for me with XPRIZE Rainforest. There seems to be these two parallel tracks of both pushing forward what's possible with technology, but always keeping in the back of our minds, how do we keep this cheap? How do we keep this simple? How do we make sure that we're getting parts and tools that can be accessed in the middle of the rainforest? How do we make sure that someone who's never seen a computer before can take our samples, take these videos, take these acoustic recordings, and understand what animals are there. 

We've got a long way to go, but it's definitely really exciting to see people thinking more about how we make tech accessible while we're still continuing to push this field forward.

XPRIZE: Were there any efforts or advancements in XPRIZE Rainforest that you found particularly inspiring towards those aims?

Dr. Meredith Palmer: Just being there on the ground, you see all of the enormous amounts of preparation that go into planning for these biodiversity assessments.

Something always goes wrong, right? On a really fundamental level, I really enjoyed some of the out-of-the-box thinking, some of the MacGyvering that went on to create solutions when equipment didn't arrive, equipment failed, equipment wasn't able to be deployed because a drone didn't end up working. I think you definitely saw creativity really thriving as part of those hiccups and challenges on the ground.

I also think that the team's ability to pull together solutions on the ground in real time demonstrates some of the accessibility challenges that would face local communities of Indigenous Peoples in obtaining this tech to perform their assessments. 

The teams that were most successful were the ones that didn't require importing chemicals and giant machines. I was really impressed. There was one team that made sure that their components could be 3D printed. They didn't have to source them from anywhere. Anyone, anywhere in the world, with those files could cheaply and easily create those tools to go out and do their own assessments. 

Balancing that, teams are pushing innovation in the tech space and pushing the field forward. I don't know, I'm a sucker for a fancy robot or a drone.

On the eDNA side, we really did have some cool stuff surfacing. I think some of the biggest advancements were these teams that made sure that you could do that whole DNA processing pipeline in the field. 

Working with eDNA is not easy. It requires a special laboratory, special lab techniques, special chemical reaction environments, sterile workplaces, very specific kinds of hardware, and very significant computing power. There's a lot that goes into turning a soil sample or a water sample into a sequence that we can identify as being a particular species. 

In XPRIZE Rainforest, we really saw innovation across that entire pipeline. Making a lot of these very complicated chemical reactions field stable, making them simple, making them straightforward. Again, with this really inspired eye towards the accessibility of tools and putting the processing power into the hands of citizen science researchers and IPLCs. There were a lot of really exciting facets of innovation in a lot of different places.

XPRIZE: How do you hope transitioning conservation from siloed efforts to integrated work of technology, conservationists, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities will improve results? 

Dr. Meredith Palmer: It is incredibly clear from my lived experience and the data from conservation efforts, they don't stick. They're not sustained. They don't have the impact we want them to if we come in and impose them on an area with enormous biodiversity. 

These really do have to be grassroots efforts. They have to be driven by the people who live with that biodiversity, that interact with those landscapes and those animals and those organisms every single day. If we don't have their buy-in and their stewardship, these conservation efforts do not succeed. 

I think technology might exacerbate this a little bit. We definitely have seen, historically, a lot of parachute conservation efforts where external researchers with funding and fancy tech tools are coming in without having a lived, detailed understanding of these landscapes, trying to figure them out from the outside.

There's so much more we could learn by incorporating not just traditional or local ecological knowledge, but by bringing in very diverse perspectives from people who see science differently, who see conservation differently, who see sustainability differently and making sure that we're building those perspectives into how we think about conservation and how we plan these monitoring projects. 

Tech is at a very interesting place. It could either exacerbate these divides or we could put in the time and effort and work to make sure that these tools support the efforts that exist already, that support human livelihoods and human concerns as well as inventories and metrics and assessments that global organizations need to understand what kind of impact we have on the world.

I have a very positive feeling that we're moving in the right direction in this space and that the right conversations are happening and the right concerns are being elevated. Innovation and development like that we're seeing in the XPRIZE right now have these ideas in mind. We can make these tools have the right kind of impact.

XPRIZE: How we can work to make STEM a larger tent and invite more of these perspectives?

Dr. Meredith Palmer: My goal as a conservationist is to innovate new tools, new ways of understanding the world around us, new ways of quantifying what's in an ecosystem and monitoring that change through time. I want new ways to do that and to do that better. But, I also want to ensure that I'm not imposing my idea of how biodiversity should be surveyed, or how areas should be protected into contexts that I don't have a very good understanding of. The innovations that we make, the tools that we make, have to be accessible and used by people on the ground. 

Those efforts have to be driven by the people who have to live with them and coexist with these landscapes and these animals that we're moving to protect. 

There's really two ways to kind of meet in the middle for making these tools and methods accessible. One of them is kind of coming from the grassroots. There's a big need to invest in improving technical literacy in diverse communities, including minority groups like women, but also really focusing on putting resources and opportunities in the hands of researchers in these biodiversity hotspots who might not have the funding for a big tech lab or the funding or accessibility to bring in new tech tools. Doing some work to raise global technical literacy to put opportunities to access those tools into the hands of people on the ground. 

The people who are innovating these tools, who are creating these new methods, who are out there pushing on the forefront of technology and bringing it into conservation should always be thinking about how do we make this tool straightforward? How do we make this tool open source? How do we make this tool free and accessible? How do we make it easier to put into the hands of the people on the ground? 

I've seen so many wonderful innovations developed in the last couple of years that we can't apply in practice because the people that we’re trying to give these tools to can’t take advantage of where we're going in the tech space. They don't have the time to learn how to code. They don't have the time to learn how to program a device. They don't have the time to learn how to fly a drone. 

Anything that we can do as we're developing these tools to make it easier for them to be picked up is going to really be the thing that unlocks the potential for deployment of these different techniques and the impact that will come from that.