Animal DNA can be collected from air, scientists show for first time

Aine Fox, PA
·2-min read

New research has shown for the first time that animal DNA can be collected from the air, and the finding could help in the understanding of the transmission of airborne diseases like Covid-19, the study author said.

Scientists at Queen Mary University of London said their work could potentially be applied to forensics, anthropology and medicine.

Dr Elizabeth Clare, senior lecturer at the university and study author, said the technique could be used to sample the air to “collect real-world evidence” to support things like social-distancing guidelines.

The team looked at whether environmental DNA (eDNA) could be collected from air samples and used to identify animal species.

The study, published in the journal PeerJ, showed that airDNA sampling could successfully detect naked mole-rat DNA from a room – as well as human DNA in the air.

Most studies to date have focused on the collection of eDNA from water.

The papers states: “Our analysis provides a first proof of concept demonstration that air samples are a viable source of DNA for the identification of species in the environment.”

It adds: “Following the success of eDNA sampling from water, we anticipate that sampling for airDNA will become useful in a wide variety of non-invasive applications from ecological sampling to forensic analysis.”

Dr Clare said: “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 is working with partners in industry and the third sector, including the company NatureMetrics, to see how the technique can be applied in other ways, the university said.

Dr Clare said: “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.”