Early starts, long days and countless interview requests from reporters - that's all in a week's work for a monster-hunting Otago University scientist.

Professor Neil Gemmell has been busy on the waters of Scotland's Loch Ness, as part of a scientific effort to reveal what lurks in the lake using cutting-edge environmental DNA, or eDNA.

But so far, he says, sampling results haven't yielded any sign of a certain mythical monster.

"The premise behind eDNA is simple – life is messy," Gemmell explained."Living things leave behind skin, hair, feathers, poo, urine, bark, pollen and spores as part of their day-to-day activities."

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These traces resulted in a veritable potpourri of organic material in our soil and water, from which DNA could be extracted and sequenced to obtain a census of life at a given place, at a given time.

Because eDNA was a reasonably new technology, it still had some form of novelty.

But when its power to document life in a given system with a lake famous for its fabled beast, people really took notice, he said.

"Obviously, the hook here is that if Nessie is present in the deep, dark and mysterious waters of Loch Ness, then we might find DNA sequences that will help us figure out the biological basis for the more than 1000 registered sightings of the monster - including two in the last month."

Of course, Gemmell - a respected scientist whose Dunedin lab combines genomics with ecology, population, conservation and evolutionary biology - isn't a believer himself.

That said, he's open to be wrong.

"Our project is not a simple monster hunt - although wouldn't it be amazing if we did find something extraordinary during our investigation," says Neil Gemmell. Photo / Twitter

After two weeks of field work, Gemmell and his team have 259 filtered water samples in the fridge collected from various parts of the loch, including its chilly depths, more than 200m down.

The expedition itself began with a simple tweet.

"About two years ago Darren Naish had just published a book Hunting Monsters, which included a chapter on Loch Ness," he said.

"Over a tweet or two I asked him if, in his research for the book, he had stumbled on anyone that was using eDNA to search for evidence of Nessie."

While the answer was no, both thought it a splendid idea.

"I had asked the question because I was becoming increasingly enamoured with the power of eDNA as a means to monitor the natural environment.

"Our team at the University of Otago had just completed a piece of work which demonstrated amazing accuracy at identifying the species that resided in the marine ecosystems we studied."

Based on that, Gemmell was already thinking about how eDNA might be used to search for and identify the creatures that live in areas of our planet which are hard to investigate using traditional approaches – deep oceans, subterranean water systems and the like.

Loch Ness seemed a perfect fit for that sort of project.

Collecting samples on the lake has involved long days, sometimes running from 6am to midnight. Photo / Twitter
Collecting samples on the lake has involved long days, sometimes running from 6am to midnight. Photo / Twitter

As with many science ideas, that tweet ended up going into the "this is quite interesting" basket and there it sat until Gemmell got an email from John Paul Breslin, a reporter with Scotland's the Sunday Post.

"John had been researching Darren's work and stumbled upon our tweets," he said.

With his journalistic interests piqued, Breslin asked Gemmell if they had actually gone ahead with the idea.

"Based on my response to that, and several other questions, he wrote an article that appeared online very close to April 1, 2017."

Some may initially have taken this as a bit of a leg pull, but the story rapidly spread from Scotland to the rest of the world.

"The media interest at that point was somewhat overwhelming when we literally had done nothing more than put forward an idea," he said.

"As the interview requests came pouring in over the days that followed, I was very aware that we had a unique opportunity to turn this idea into a reality."

At that point, he asked himself: was that really something he wanted to do?

"At the time I was the head of a very large and successful department at a well-respected university, with an international reputation for doing quality work in the areas of molecular ecology and evolution.

"Pursuing this project posed potential risk to my scientific reputation, with some colleagues suggesting the idea might be a career killer.

"I therefore might well have walked away and said 'interesting idea, someone will eventually do this, but it won't be me'.

"The turning point arrived a morning after the initial media flurry in New Zealand.

After two weeks of field work, Gemmell and his team have 259 filtered water samples in the fridge collected from various parts of the loch. Photo / Twitter
After two weeks of field work, Gemmell and his team have 259 filtered water samples in the fridge collected from various parts of the loch. Photo / Twitter

"Dropping my son off at school I was surprised to have a large posse of 8-and 9-year-olds telling me that they had seen me in the local paper and on TV."

Given their obvious interest, he asked them what they thought of the idea of hunting for the Loch Ness monster using new DNA approaches.

The answer - "we think this is the coolest thing ever" - resonated with him.

"This was cool, it was fun, and it was a magnificent opportunity to engage the public, particularly kids, in the scientific process," he said.

"I decided then that, yes, we would make this happen, but we would use the monster as the bait and science as the hook."

The plan was for the project to have the appearance of a monster hunt, capturing the spirit of adventure and excitement of such initiatives, but to also have the credibility and integrity of the scientific process at its core.

In essence it would be a straight up biodiversity survey using eDNA tools, albeit on one of the world's most famous bodies of water.

But, because of the astonishing level of interest in Loch Ness, this project would also provide opportunities to communicate the power of the latest DNA technologies and the scientific process to a general audience the likes of which he had never before achieved.

Armed with a plan, Gemmell started to contact people who he thought would be interested in the project as potential collaborators.

One of the first stops was naturalist and Loch Ness expert, Adrian Shine.

"Adrian initially thought this was some kind of belated April Fool's joke, but quickly warmed to the idea of using eDNA to understand the loch, and in so doing perhaps shine a new light on the monster myth," he said.

"Adrian had dragged and dredged Loch Ness many times with nets and other devices, spending many hours sorting through diatoms, insects, fish and other species to document the life of the loch.

"He liked the 'elegance' of the eDNA approach, where the sampling of water was relatively easy, compared to the meticulous and time-consuming work that would be undertaken in labs.

"On the basis of a Skype call, Shine offered his support and that of the Loch Ness Centre and Project, which would provide a boat and skipper.

Next, Gemmell contacted a number of other colleagues, who all agreed to join the project.

The team had grown steadily over time, as Gemmell and his colleagues had discovered the Loch Ness hunt would not only describe the biodiversity of Loch Ness in unprecedented fashion, but also added value to ongoing efforts to document the fish biodiversity of the UK's lakes and rivers.

Further, the work would provide important baseline data from which new insights into the impact of climate change and invasive species will likely emerge.

"So, our project is not a simple monster hunt - although wouldn't it be amazing if we did find something extraordinary during our investigation," he said.

"Rather it is an amalgam of basic science, linked to major current UK initiatives, with a strong science communication narrative that has captured hearts and minds globally."

Loch Ness' mythical monster has made the Scotland lake one of the world's most famous water bodies. Photo / Twitter
Loch Ness' mythical monster has made the Scotland lake one of the world's most famous water bodies. Photo / Twitter

While the team initially thought they might crowdfund this work, resourcing had not proven to be a major sticking point.

"Each of our collaborators has given time and resources to the project and we have also received significant industry support from the likes of molecular biology and DNA sequencing suppliers including Qiagen, Illumina, Oxford Nanopore and Fasteris."

By the start of this month, they found themselves at Loch Ness, ready to go.

With colleagues from the University of Otago, the Loch Ness Project, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Hull and the University of the Highlands and Islands, Gemmell collected hundreds of samples in a relatively short space of time.

"Miraculously, for the Highlands, the wind stayed light and the rain stayed away which meant we were able to send teams out to sample right around Loch Ness by car and small boat, as well as several nearby lochs as controls.

"In the evenings we used the Loch Ness Centre boat to sample up and down Loch Ness, particularly targeting the deep water, down to 200m."

Days were long, with the team frequently starting as early as 6am and finishing as late as midnight.

Between all of the work was a raft of media interviews, along with talks with multiple production houses about a potential documentary. Photo / Neil Gemmell, Twitter
Between all of the work was a raft of media interviews, along with talks with multiple production houses about a potential documentary. Photo / Neil Gemmell, Twitter

Sampling at depth, in particular, was physical and time consuming work taking 20 minutes or so to collect each sample.

"Likewise the filtering of the samples took about seven minutes, tallying roughly 30 hours of continuous work for the 259 we collected," he said.

"Thank goodness we had many hands to make the workload lighter."

The project was also hard on their equipment – they broke two of their three sampling devices deploying to depth.

"Thank goodness plan C worked without fail as we had no plan D," he said.

"I also learned the saying 'this is going well' is sure to augur some form of equipment failure so have learnt to keep my thoughts on project trajectory to myself."

Between all of the work was a raft of media interviews, along with talks with multiple production houses about a potential documentary.

A message on the back of the team's car left no doubt as to what they were hunting. Photo / Twitter
A message on the back of the team's car left no doubt as to what they were hunting. Photo / Twitter

"It was a lot of work, but given one of our key goals was to communicate our science, the attention, while exhausting, was welcome."

Now, with sample collection behind them, they are on to the next phase of work.

The DNA from the samples were currently being extracted at the University of Hull.

From there it will go to the Laboratoire D'Ecologie Alpine, in Grenoble, where it will be metabarcoded and the samples will be sequenced at Fasteris in Geneva, with support from Illumina.

What's likely to reside in their samples?

"Well undoubtedly there will be DNA sequences derived from bacteria, protists, algae, invertebrates, and the traces of the fish, birds and other vertebrate life known from the loch.

"Is there anything else, perhaps something unusual, such as a giant catfish, sturgeon or eel, or a species unknown to science?

"It seems unlikely, but who knows."

Nessie believers will have to wait until next year to find out.