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Scientists Pull Animal DNA Out Of Thin Air

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Scientists have successfully pulled out animal DNA from thin air.

Two new proof-of-concept studies published today in the journal Current Biology are among the first to show that tiny fragments of DNA in the air can be used to detect different species. The non-invasive approach could be especially useful for detecting rare, invasive and otherwise hard-to-find animals. The discovery was made simultaneously by the two independent research groups, one based in Denmark, and the other based in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Both of us admit that this is a bit of a crazy idea—we're vacuuming DNA out of the sky,” says Clare, of York University, Canada, who was at the Queen Mary University of London when she led the work. The complementing study was led by Kristine Bohmann, a genomicist from the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Each team conducted its individual studies at a local zoo, collecting samples in both walled-in areas like the tropical house and indoor stables and outdoor, open-air enclosures.

To collect airborne eDNA, the Copenhagen team used a fan, like one used to cool down a computer, and attached a filter to it. The fan draws in air from the zoo and its surroundings. This could contain genetic material from breath, saliva, fur or faeces, though the exact source has not been determined.

After air filtration, they extracted the DNA from the filter and used PCR amplification to make a lot of copies of the animal DNA, the researchers said. They processed the millions of DNA sequences and compared them to a DNA reference database to identify the animal species.

Clare’s team detected DNA from 25 species of mammals and birds from inside the zoo and wildlife nearby. Bohmann’s team detected 49 non-human vertebrate species, including mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species.

It’s a coincidence that researchers in two locations came up with the same idea at the same time, but after seeing each other’s articles on a preprint server, the two groups decided to submit their manuscripts to the journal jointly.

“We decided we would rather take a bit of a gamble and say we’re not willing to compete on this,” said Clare. “In fact, it’s such a crazy idea, we’re better off having independent confirmations that this works. Both teams are very eager to see this technique develop.”