The majority of environmental DNA (eDNA) assays for vertebrate species are based on commonly analyzed regions of the mitochondrial genome. However, the high degree of mitochondrial similarity between two species of charr (Salvelinus spp.), southern Dolly Varden (S. malma lordii) and bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), precludes the development of a mitochondrial eDNA assay to distinguish them. Presented here is an eDNA assay to detect bull trout based on the first ribosomal internal transcribed spacer (ITSI), a nuclear marker. This assay successfully detects bull trout and avoids detecting Dolly Varden as well as brook trout (S. fontinalis), Arctic char (S. alpinus), and lake trout (S. namaycush). In addition, this assay was compared with an extensively used mitochondrial bull trout assay and it was found that the ITSI-based assay produced higher detectability. Our results suggest this assay should out-perform the published mtDNA assay across the range of bull trout, while the added specificity allows reliable bull trout detection in areas where bull trout co-occur with other charr such as Dolly Varden. While clearly a superior assay in this instance, basing assays on ITSI is not without problems. For vertebrates, there are fewer ITSI sequences available than commonly sequenced regions of the mitochondrial genome. Thus, the initial in silico screening of candidate assays must be preceded by much more extensive sampling and sequencing of sympatric or closely related taxa. Further, all copies of the internal transcribed spacers within an individual may not be identical, which can lead to complications. Lastly, the copy number for ITSI varies widely across taxa; the greater detectability associated with this assay cannot be assumed for other species.
Dysthe, Joseph C.; Franklin, Thomas W.; McKelvey, Kevin S.; Young, Michael K.; Schwartz, Michael K. 2018. An improved environmental DNA assay for bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) based on the ribosomal internal transcribed spacer I. PLoS One. 13: e0206851.