A small, simple device promises to revolutionize how scientists study threatened and endangered animals. It’s called an air sniffer and consists of a small fan which draws air in through a filter – similar to a vaccuum cleaner – trapping DNA from the surrounding environment. Created by biologists from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the device fits in the palm of your hand, needs very little electricity to operate, and can be placed anywhere to gather DNA samples in the wild. To test the gadget, the researchers placed three air sniffers at different locations around the Copenhagen zoo.
Test results from the air sniffer stunned researchers. First off, they didn’t really think it would work. Secondly, they thought that if it worked at all, the eDNA collected would have originated close by to where the sniffers had been placed, no more than a few meters (yards) away. To their amazement, the air sniffer collected DNA that had drifted, airborne, hundreds of meters from the source animals. Even more surprising, some of the eDNA collected came from guppies loitering in the zoo’s rainforest pool, and even from domestic dogs and cats outside of the zoo’s perimeter. In total, they were able to identify 49 vertebrate species from the collected samples.
Environmental DNA (eDNA) has previously been gathered by other means. Scientists had collected animal and plant eDNA from soils, water, snow, and other mediums, including air, but to be successful it helped to know where, exactly, the animal being researched had been in order to gather the desired eDNA. This new air sniffer technology will allow researchers to monitor large areas for the presence of rare, threatened, and endangered animals. If the creature is in the vicinity, the air sniffer will collect its eDNA, because all animals are constantly shedding DNA.
As I write this, it occurs to me that air sniffers could possibly also be used to track the location of bird flu outbreaks. Mass produced and strategically located, sniffers could help alert officials that bird flu was spreading and recommend action to contain it.
“DNA from air – new special vacuum cleaner” with English subtitles (0:53)
“New technology enables scientists to extract DNA from air” (2:21)