Timely and accurate biodiversity analysis poses an ongoing challenge in ecological and biomonitoring programs, since morphology-based identification of taxa is time consuming and rarely supports species-level resolution. Copepods, the main constituent of zooplankton, play a major role in marine ecosystems functioning, however their study is still limited because of such methodological reasons.
The recent advances in genetic and image analysis systems offer an opportunity to overcome these limitations. The 'MetaCopepod' project, based on the combination of next-generation sequencing technologies and image analysis, aims to develop a fast, high-throughput, cost effective and accurate methodology, to assess and monitor the biodiversity of planktonic copepods in terms of species composition, abundance, biomass and size-distribution, without the need of a taxonomy expert.
To achieve this, bulk copepod samples will be first analysed using an image analysis software “trained” to automatically recognize, count and size-measure images of copepods. Subsequently, the same samples will be massively sequenced for a selected DNA fragment (barcode), and with a bioinformatic pipeline, sequences will be compared to a reference genetic database developed within this project, and identified at species-level. The combination of these approaches will allow first to inter-calibrate them, and then to analyze copepod communities both qualitatively and quantitatively with high accuracy.
'MetaCopepod' will have an immediate impact on copepod studies in Mediterranean and Black Seas, by unmasking hidden copepod diversity and facilitating the identification of the numerous small-size species and early copepod life stages. In addition, it will create an efficient biomonitoring tool for detecting ecosystem changes due to global warming, bioinvasions and other human activities, which are especially evident in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.