In DepthConservation Biology

DNA plucked from air identifies nearby animals

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Science  23 Jul 2021:
Vol. 373, Issue 6553, pp. 376
DOI: 10.1126/science.373.6553.376

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Summary

Two research groups have independently shown the atmosphere can contain detectable amounts of DNA from many kinds of animals. Their preprints, posted on bioRxiv last week, suggest sampling air may enable a faster, cheaper way to survey creatures in ecosystems. For more than a decade, researchers have analyzed disparate sources of environmental DNA (eDNA) in water to identify elusive organisms. Far fewer studies have been done on animal eDNA in air. Now, a team of researchers in the United Kingdom has identified eDNA in air samples from 17 species of bird and mammal kept at a zoo and eight other species living in and around it, such as hedgehogs. Researchers in Denmark sampled air in the Copenhagen Zoo and detected 49 species of vertebrates. For field biologists, airborne DNA may help reveal the presence of otherwise hard to detect animals, such as those in dry environments, burrows, or caves, and those that fly out of sight of wildlife cameras, like some birds. Many questions remain about the approach, including how far eDNA travels on air. Despite the unknowns, experts say the ability to detect so many vertebrate species in air samples using DNA is a significant step.

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