For the first time ever, scientists have managed to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) from the air. The practice, still at its early stages, could revolutionize forensics, anthropology, and even medicine.
The scientists first took air samples from a room that had housed naked mole-rats and showed that airDNA sampling could successfully detect mole-rat DNA within the animal’s housing. The scientists also spotted human DNA in the air samples.
They initially ventured a guess that this might be due to contamination. However, with further research, they came to the conclusion that the human genetic material was moving away from its original source and spreading throughout the air.
“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. Here we provide the first published evidence to show that animal eDNA can be collected from air, opening up further opportunities for investigating animal communities in hard to reach environments such as caves and burrows," Dr. Elizabeth Clare, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and first author of the study, said.
The researchers are now working with partners in the industry to bring some of the potential applications of this technology to life. Clare added that: “What started off as an attempt to see if this approach could be used for ecological assessments has now become much more.”
Clare further explained that the technique could help researchers to better understand the transmission of airborne diseases such as COVID-19. "At the moment social distancing guidelines are based on physics and estimates of how far away virus particles can move, but with this technique we could actually sample the air and collect real-world evidence to support such guidelines," Clare explained.
The study is published in the journal PeerJ.