A university professor from New Zealand is planning to put our modern knowledge of genetics to work in solving a decades-old mystery: does the Loch Ness Monster, nicknamed ‘Nessie’, actually exist?

The University of Otago’s Professor Neil Gemmell is proposing that new genomic forensic techniques be used to search for the elusive creature. While Nessie gained widespread popularity via the oft-debunked "surgeon’s photograph" published in 1934, legends of a large creature living in the lake predate the famous picture. Numerous sightings have been reported over the past century, along with the publication of dozens of photographs that allegedly depict Nessie.

Gemmell plans to gather water samples from Loch Ness, and then subject them to genetic analysis, to search for DNA traces from creatures that haven’t been catalogued. Gemmell’s proposal is novel, as it appears to be the first attempt at a genetic search for Nessie.

"We use environmental DNA to monitor marine biodiversity. From a few litres of water we can detect thousands of species," explains Gemmell.

"All large organisms lose cells as they move through their environment. New genomic technology is sensitive enough to pick this up and we can use comparisons to databases that span the majority of known living things. If there was anything unusual in the loch these DNA tools would be likely to pick up that evidence."

Veteran Nessie hunters like Steve Feltham are eager to aid in gathering samples, and are interested in what the study’s findings might reveal: "If anyone thinks they can identify it – bring them on. Anything that gives us more knowledge is to be welcomed."

Feltham also warns that even if Gemmell’s study comes up empty-handed, that doesn’t mean that the mysterious creature doesn’t exist, whatever its actual nature may be.