Scientists have been using environmental DNA (eDNA) for more than 10 years to measure biodiversity and discover new species, often filtering it from water or soil.
Two separate research groups have recently proven that the atmosphere contains measurable quantities of DNA, too. And, by vacuuming it out of the sky, researchers can identify numerous animals that lived or passed through that region.
“The ability to detect so many species in air samples using DNA is a huge leap,” ecologist Matthew Barnes, from Texas Tech University, said. “It represents an exciting potential addition to the toolbox.”
The studies suggest that many other things are floating in the air, in addition to plant spores, like animal hair and cells.
Even though the technique has gotten some attention from researchers eager to give it a try, there are still questions to work out — like how to design a controlled study, how far eDNA travels, and how it got there.
But once refined, this technique could be used to monitor animal populations that are hard to observe, measure biodiversity in different places over time, and even discover new species floating on the wind.