Sucking DNA samples out of the air can help endangered species. Here's how

·2 min read
Sucking DNA samples out of the air can help endangered species. Here's how

Scientists have found the air carries detectable traces of environmental DNA (eDNA for short), and this discovery could drastically change the way experts track vulnerable or endangered species.

Two independent research teams were, coincidentally, exploring this concept, and both have successfully used vacuum devices to capture and filter airborne samples and identify the eDNA shed by living creatures in a given area.

Their findings have been published in two papers appearing in the journal Current Biology.

The groups were not aware of each other's experiments but, upon collaborating, found several parallels.

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GIF - quote block - custom graphic

A team from Denmark collected air samples using three different devices. Their study, conducted at the Copenhagen Zoo, retreived 40 collected samples and detected 49 species - including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish.

They also detected the eDNA of the meat fed to some zoo animals, including chicken and beef.

The other team, based in the UK, used filters attached to vacuum pumps to attached to collect more than 70 samples at the Hamerton Zoo Park.

“When we analyzed the collected samples, we were able to identify DNA from 25 different species of animals, such as tigers, lemurs, and dingoes, 17 of which were known zoo species," said Assistant Professor Elizabeth Clare, formerly of Queen Mary University of London, and lead author of the UK study.


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"We were even able to collect eDNA from animals that were hundreds of metres away from where we were testing without a significant drop in the concentration, and even from outside sealed buildings. The animals were inside, but their DNA was escaping."

Scientists are already using eDNA in water samples to track the species in a local aquatic ecosystem - but harnessing eDNA from the air is a new concept.

“Air is a challenging substrate to work with as air surrounds everything, which means that contamination risk is high," Dr. Christina Lynggaard, lead researcher on the Denmark study, said in a statement.

"We wanted to ensure that the species we detected were from the zoo and not for example from the lab. To ensure that we did not have any contaminant DNA floating in the air in the lab, we sampled air from within the lab and sequenced that too.”

The authors of the studies say more work is needed to perfect the concept, but collecting airborne samples could one day make it easier to track endangered animals that are difficult to locate using traditional observation methods.

Video production: April Walker. Thumbnail image by Cheryl Santa Maria. Gorilla: MLARANDA/pixabay DNA: selamiozalp/Getty Images Plus.

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