Researchers from Queen Mary University of London have demonstrated for the first time that animal DNA shed in the environment can be collected from the air. Researchers say the proof of concept study opens the potential for new ecological, health, and forensic applications for environmental DNA (eDNA). The researchers say living organisms like plants and animals shed DNA into the surrounding environment as they interact with the environment.
eDNA has been a tool used by scientists to identify species found in different environments. A range of environmental samples have been proposed as sources for eDNA, including soil and air, but most studies have focused on collecting eDNA from water. In the most recent study, researchers focused on determining if eDNA can be collected from air samples and used to identify animal species.
Researchers took air samples from a room with naked mole-rats and used existing techniques to check for DNA sequences in the air samples. The team showed that airDNA sampling successfully detected mole-rat DNA within the animal’s housing and from the room itself. Interestingly, the researchers also found human DNA in the air samples suggesting a potential use in forensic applications.
The researchers are currently working with industry partners, including a company called NatureMetrics, to bring the technology’s potential applications to life. Researchers say this started as an attempt to see if the approach could be used for ecological assessment and has become much more.
They believe technology has potential applications in forensics, anthropology, and medicine. They say the technique could help us better understand the transmission of airborne diseases like COVID-19. Currently, social distancing guidelines are based on physics and estimates how far virus particles can move. However, their technique could sample air and collect real-world evidence to support guidelines.