In a proof-of-concept study published on Wednesday in the scientific Journal PeerJ, researchers from the Queen Mary University of London have shown for the first time in a peer-reviewed scientific study that a novel tool used for environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling can be used to detect the DNA of certain mammals - including humans - from the air.
According to the United States Geological Survey, Environmental DNA (eDNA) is either nuclear or mitochondrial DNA that is released from animals and plants into the surrounding environment. Examples of eDNA include as feces, mucous, and gametes; shed skin and hair; and carcasses.
In recent years, eDNA has become an important tool to help scientists identify species found within different environments, though most studies until now have focused on the collection of eDNA from water, while the rest have tried soil, rain and snow.
During the study, researchers found that the airDNA sampling method was successfully able to detect DNA from a room which had previously housed naked mole-rats.
Moreover, the scientists also found human DNA in the air samples they had taken, suggesting a potential future use of the sampling technique for forensic applications..
Dr Elizabeth Clare, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and first author of the study, said the method could be particularly interesting 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."
Dr Clare said that "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," she said. "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."