Quirks and Quarks

Sniffing out animal DNA in the air could help monitor endangered species

Scientists have shown that DNA from air samples can be used to detect a wide range of animal species. The researchers found they could not only capture the DNA of animals living in a zoo, but also the DNA of the animals' food, and the urban wildlife outside.

Airborne DNA comes from sloughed off skin cells, saliva, and hair and other sources

Dingos at Hamerton Zoo in the UK eye the research team's air sampling equipment with curiosity. The scientists were able to detect airborne DNA from animals from several hundred metres away. (Elizabeth Clare)

In two independent studies, researchers captured air from inside a zoo to 'sniff out' environmental DNA, which allowed them to identify the presence of animals nearby.

Environmental DNA is often used to identify species in water. Elizabeth Clare, lead author of one of the papers, wanted to see if it could be detected in air, and potentially work as a non-invasive way of monitoring terrestrial biodiversity.

"We had effectively been challenged to see if we could do this," said Prof. Clare, an assistant professor at York University in Toronto. "Almost every other bio-monitoring technique requires that the animal be present ... With environmental DNA, it's more like a footprint. The animal leaves it behind and presumably long after it's gone, we can still take that measurement."

Elizabeth Clare samples the air to collect environmental DNA. The hope is that this could be a valuable, non-invasive tool to track biodiversity. (Submitted by Elizabeth Clare)

After sampling air from 72 sites around the zoo, Prof. Clare's team were able to identify DNA from not only the animal species living in the zoo, but also identify DNA from their food, as well as urban wildlife in the area. A second study, from a team at the University of Copenhagen, had similar results.

"We move around in an environment that's literally a soup of all these fragments and traces of things being left behind," said Prof. Clare. "It's a marvellous thing from a research perspective to think of all that information that is literally floating around in front of us."

You can listen to Prof. Clare's full interview with Bob McDonald at the link above.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz