In a study published on Mar. 31, scientists at Queen Mary University of London have demonstrated that DNA can be harvested from the air for the first time. This discovery could help forensics researchers, anthropologists and even identify airborne diseases like COVID-19. In what ways does this technique work? 

Collecting eDNA from the air

According to a report on ScienceFocus, Queen Mary University of London, scientists have demonstrated that DNA can be extracted from the air for the first time.

Researchers from forensics, anthropology, and even public health believe that such a discovery could help understand how airborne diseases spread. COVID-19 is a prime example as it can be collected in areas where the virus is spreading quickly.

The team examined the possibility of using environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify animal species from air samples. Most similar studies have concentrated on collecting eDNA from water samples.

The proof-of-concept study, published in the magazine PeerJ, demonstrated that DNA from naked mole rats and humans could be detected in the air.

According to Engadget, The researchers used a peristaltic pump and pressurized filters to collect mole-rat DNA samples for up to 20 minutes. They then applied standard sequencing kits to the obtained samples.

The research team demonstrated using this method that air DNA can successfully detect mole rat DNA within the animals' housing or from the room itself. Human DNA was also found in air samples, suggesting that this sampling technique could be used for forensic investigations.

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Can Air Samples be used effectively today

The lead author, Dr. Elizabeth Claire, states the study was initially intended to assist conservationists and ecologists while studying biological environments.

With enough development, though, it could be used for much more. Forensics units could take DNA samples from the air to check if they were present at a crime scene.

It could also help medical practitioners understand how airborne viruses spread, such as the one behind COVID-19.

Currently, social distancing guidelines are based on estimates of how far away virus particles can spread because of physics laws. However, scientists could collect objective evidence to support such guidelines using this technique, said Clare in a ScienceFocus article.

Practical applications are still a long way off. Several private organizations like NatureMetrics are already developing practical applications.

The limitations are easy to see - you want this in areas where you may know what DNA to expect, so it may not work very well in crowded rooms or outdoors. Nonetheless, the option could be advantageous in situations where surfaces don't provide clear answers.

Although this new technique has a long way to go, it will benefit many people shortly. It also provides a new way to obtain DNA and discover information about the world around us.

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Written by Lionell Moore

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