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Scientists have found a way to suck animal DNA out of the air

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Posted at 2:47 PM, Jan 18, 2022

Two separate research groups in the U.K. and Denmark have come up with the same idea for a study that could help save endangered species, and have gotten the same results.

It involves sucking environmental DNA from the air that animals leave behind.

"We use a really small pump that pulls the air through, and we hope the DNA gets caught on the filter," said Elizabeth Clare, a professor of molecular biology at York University in Toronto. "It's a bit like making coffee. You make coffee by sucking water through a filter and leaving the coffee grounds behind. That's basically what we're doing; we're just sucking the air through and hoping that the DNA gets lost behind."

Clare says the concept has been used for years in different ways.

Scientists sample pathogens from the air, which has been used to help track COVID-19. Environmental DNA can also be collected from water to help mitigate invasive species.

A big goal for both research teams with the new study is to be able to locate endangered species and help save them.

It is important to note that this type of DNA sampling can only pick up if a species was in the area, so if there were two of the same animal, scientists would not be able to tell which one the DNA came from — they would only be able to tell that specific animal was there.

Both research groups also reported certain DNA samples not showing up when they knew an animal had been in the area.

The team in the U.K. missed maned wolves at the zoo they were studying at, and the team in Denmark missed the hippos at their zoo.

Clare says they also can't tell yet how long an animal's DNA will stick around after it's been in one area. She says she'd like to plan more research to get these answers.

But one thing is for sure after conducting the study, Clare says she has a whole new perspective on taking a deep breath.

"As you know, I'm walking through a jungle or the park or taking my dog for a walk or my kids out to play, and I take a deep breath; I think I just inhaled information about all the things that have been here before, and as a scientist, that's exciting to think that the information that I'm trying to gather is literally hanging in front of me," she said.