Researchers from Queen Mary University of London have shown for the first time that animal DNA shed within the environment can be collected from the air.
The proof-of-concept study, published in the journal PeerJ, opens up potential for new ecological, health and forensic applications of environmental DNA (eDNA), which to-date has mainly been used to survey aquatic environments.
Living organisms such as plants and animals shed DNA into their surrounding environments as they interact with them. In recent years, eDNA has become an important tool to help scientists identify species found within different environments. However, whilst a range of environmental samples, including soil and air, have been proposed as sources of eDNA until now most studies have focused on the collection of eDNA from water.
In this study, the researchers explored whether eDNA could be collected from air samples and used to identify animal species. They first took air samples from a room which had housed naked mole-rats, a social rodent species that live in underground colonies, and then used existing techniques to check for DNA sequences within the sampled air.
Using this approach, the research team showed that airDNA sampling could successfully detect mole-rat DNA within the animal's housing and from the room itself. The scientists also found human DNA in the air samples suggesting a potential use of this sampling technique for forensic applications.
Dr Elizabeth Clare, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and first author of the study, said: "The use of eDNA 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."
The research team are now working with partners in industry and the third sector, including the company NatureMetrics, to bring some of the potential applications of this technology to life. Dr Clare added: "What started off as an attempt to see if this approach could be used for ecological assessments has now become much more, with potential applications in forensics, anthropology and even medicine."
"For example, this technique could help us 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."
The project was supported by Queen Mary's Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAAs), strategic awards provided to institutions by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that support knowledge exchange (KE) and help researchers generate impact from their research.
Notes to editors
* Research publication: 'eDNAir: proof of concept that animal DNA can be collected from air sampling' Elizabeth L Clare, Chloe Economou, Chris G Faulkes, James D Gilbert, Frances Bennett, Rosie Drinkwater, Joanne E Littlefair, PeerJ.
* A supporting video is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhUPIx4fiGc
* For a copy of the paper or more information please contact:
Faculty Communications Manager (Science & Engineering)
Queen Mary University of London
Tel: 020 7882 3787
About Queen Mary
Queen Mary University of London is a research-intensive university that connects minds worldwide. A member of the prestigious Russell Group, we work across the humanities and social sciences, medicine and dentistry, and science and engineering, with inspirational teaching directly informed by our world-leading research. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework we were ranked 5th in the country for the proportion of research outputs that were world-leading or internationally excellent. We have over 25,000 students and offer more than 240 degree programmes. Our reputation for excellent teaching was rewarded with silver in the most recent Teaching Excellence Framework. Queen Mary has a proud and distinctive history built on four historic institutions stretching back to 1785 and beyond. Common to each of these institutions - the London Hospital Medical College, St Bartholomew's Medical College, Westfield College and Queen Mary College - was the vision to provide hope and opportunity for the less privileged or otherwise under-represented. Today, Queen Mary University of London remains true to that belief in opening the doors of opportunity for anyone with the potential to succeed and helping to build a future we can all be proud of.
Find out more about our animal research here: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/research/strategy-support-and-guidance/ethics-and-policies/animal-research/