Scientists collect animal DNA from the air in a world’s first

For the first time ever, scientists have demonstrated that animal DNA can be collected from the air — a breakthrough that could revolutionize forensics, conservation, and even epidemiology.

Collecting environmental DNA (eDNA) is nothing new in itself. Ecologists have previously collected eDNA from water to monitor fish populations and check for invasive species, but the technique has never before been used with air. Interested in using a similar technique to identify what species are present in places difficult to access, such as a cave or a borough, researchers from Queen Mary University London decided to try it out in an artificial environment.

Equipped with similar filters used for sampling eDNA from water, the team of researchers sampled airDNA from inside a room that had housed naked mole-rats and successfully detected mole-rat DNA.

“The use of eDNA (environmental DNA) has become a topic of increasing interest within the scientific community particularly for ecologists or conservationists looking for efficient and non-invasive ways to monitor biological environments,” said Dr. Elizabeth Clare, Senior Lecturer at the university and lead author of the study.

“Here we provide the first published evidence to show that animal eDNA can be collected from the air, opening up further opportunities for investigating animal communities in hard-to-reach environments such as caves and burrows,” Dr. Clare added.

The team is now working with partners to bring some of the potential applications of the new technology to life. Epidemiology, for example, could be one of the areas that the new technique might come in handy, helping researchers to better understand the spread of airborne diseases like COVID-19.

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