A team of researchers from the Queen Mary University of London and the Hamerton Zoo Park recently demonstrated they could identify and collect the DNA of dozens of different species of animal by simply extracting it from the air we breathe.
Side note: According to Guinness, the longest anyone’s held their breath on record is just shy of 25 minutes.
Up front: Yuck. But also, wow! We’ve long known that scientists could detect environmental DNA, or eDNA as it’s called. But this study puts into perspective not only how useful this could be but how robust our ability to detect and extract eDNA is in the modern age.
In this study we collect environmental DNA from mammals and birds from air samples collected in a natural setting. Using only air, we identified 25 species of mammal and bird known to be in the area.
Background: It’s common knowledge that humans are destroying Earth. We’ve completely changed the land and seascapes of the planet while simultaneously screwing up the atmosphere.
For many species of animal, the situation is critically precarious. And we’re the only ones that can save them. We need as much information as we can possibly get, but we also need to ensure we’re not disrupting a species on the brink of extinction with our conservation efforts.
As the researchers put it:
The global decline in biodiversity requires rapid non-invasive biomonitoring tools applicable at a global scale.
Using only air, we identified 25 species of mammal and bird known to be in the area. Our dataset detected species at risk of local extinction and several confirmed predator-prey interactions. This approach will revolutionize terrestrial biodiversity surveys.
The big idea: The team collected air samples from the area inside and surrounding a zoo site and compared the findings to databases of known species in the area.
The scientists were able to detect zoo animal eDNA – that is, DNA in the air from animals not found outside of the zoo in London – from as far away as 300 meters.
Once the air was collected, the team put it through a chemical process that allowed them to use machine learning systems to sort the data and determine exactly which species of animal were shedding cells into the local atmospheric environment.
Quick take: This has the potential to save the lives of countless animals, and maybe even bring thousands of species back from the brink of extinction. It also has the potential to be the origin story for the most terrifying surveillance system ever imagined.
It’s all fun and games until the government can snatch DNA out of the air and determine with 100% accuracy not only what it belongs to but whom.
That’s probably a long ways off, but it’s never to early to start thinking about privacy.