Environmental DNA (eDNA) refers to the genetic material that can be extracted from bulk environmental samples such as soil, water, and even air. The rapidly expanding study of eDNA has generated unprecedented ability to detect species and conduct genetic analyses for conservation, management, and research, particularly in scenarios where collection of whole organisms is impractical or impossible. While the number of studies demonstrating successful eDNA detection has increased rapidly in recent years, less research has explored the “ecology” of eDNA—myriad interactions between extraorganismal genetic material and its environment—and its influence on eDNA detection, quantification, analysis, and application to conservation and research. Here, we outline a framework for understanding the ecology of eDNA, including the origin, state, transport, and fate of extraorganismal genetic material. Using this framework, we review and synthesize the findings of eDNA studies from diverse environments, taxa, and fields of study to highlight important concepts and knowledge gaps in eDNA study and application. Additionally, we identify frontiers of conservation-focused eDNA application where we see the most potential for growth, including the use of eDNA for estimating population size, population genetic and genomic analyses via eDNA, inclusion of other indicator biomolecules such as environmental RNA or proteins, automated sample collection and analysis, and consideration of an expanded array of creative environmental samples. We discuss how a more complete understanding of the ecology of eDNA is integral to advancing these frontiers and maximizing the potential of future eDNA applications in conservation and research.
- Environmental DNA