Conservation efforts have led scientists to a radical idea: vacuuming animal DNA out of thin air.
Over the past few years, researchers have been tracking aquatic animals using DNA from the water, as well as DNA from plants floating in the air. The process of analysing environmental DNA isn’t a groundbreaking notion – however, a new ‘crazy idea’ has taken hold, and shows promise for the future: ‘We are literally sucking DNA out of the sky.’
In two new papers for the Current Biology journal, findings showed that dozens of animals could be detected by sampling the air.
‘One thing that we’ve discovered in eDNA research is really that any environmental medium (water, soil, snow, etc.) has the potential to harbour DNA that we can sample,’ Stephen F. Spear, a research biologist with the US Geological Survey, told NPR.
While the idea of using DNA from the air seemed ‘crazy’ at first, it was conceived by two separate teams: one led by Elizabeth Clare, a molecular ecologist at York University in Toronto, Canada; and another by Kristine Bohmann, a researcher at the GLOBE Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Bohmann eventually enlisted the help of Christina Lynggaard, who tried vacuuming DNA using a commercial vacuum cleaner. It was ‘super noisy’, but it worked, so they looked to find a more effective location.
‘We realised we are based in Copenhagen… we had the Copenhagen Zoo. If we detect a flamingo, well we’re sure that it’s not coming from anywhere else but that flamingo enclosure,’ Bohmann said.
Amazingly, they picked up nearly 50 different species. ‘We even detected the guppy that was living in the pond in the rainforest house. It was just absolutely mind-blowing,’ Bohmann said.
Meanwhile, Clare’s team sampled DNA at an outdoor zoo in Cambridgeshire and managed to find 25 species. ‘Things like the Eurasian hedgehog, which is critically endangered in the UK,’ she said.
The two teams eventually learned of their competing works, but instead of rushing to publish, they decided to collaborate. ‘We are independently confirming this works to ourselves, and to everybody else. I think, we both thought, the papers are stronger together,’ Clare said.
While there’s still several questions to be answered, Clare has ‘this vision of samplers that are deployed globally that can suck up the DNA from all these different sources, from soil and honey and rain and snow and air and water, sequence them on site, beam the data up to the servers… we don’t have a coordinated system for that’.
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