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Study Finds Air Quality Devices Collect DNA from Environment

This photo provided by the National Physical Laboratory in June 2023 shows air sampling filters stationed at the Auchencorth Moss research facility in Scotland. In a study published Monday, May 5, 2023. (National Physical Laboratory via AP)
Study Finds Air Quality Devices Collect DNA from Environment
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A new study has found that devices used to measure air quality in the environment also take in DNA material from the local area.

Scientists say this collected DNA can be useful in identifying what plants and animals have been in the area. It could also help document changes in the environment over time.

Researchers say the finding suggests air quality measuring devices have collected large amounts of biodiversity data. But the collection efforts have not been recognized until now, said Elizabeth Clare. She is a biologist at Canada’s York University and a lead writer of the study.

As animals and plants go through their life cycles, they leave small pieces of themselves in the environment. This includes materials such as fur, feathers or pollen that identify their genetic makeup.

Scientists have long known this kind of environmental DNA can float in water. They have even used it to follow, or track, different species in lakes and rivers. But it has been much harder to get a genetic picture of animals living on land, said Kristine Bohmann. She studies environmental DNA at the University of Copenhagen. She was not involved in the latest study.

In 2021, both Bohmann and Clare worked on similar projects to see whether they could pull animal DNA from the air. After setting up collection equipment in local zoos, the teams were able to capture and examine DNA from many different species.

After seeing success in that process, the researchers wanted to expand their efforts to larger areas.

In the latest study, Clare and her team tested air filters from two measuring stations, one in London and one in Scotland. The two places are part of a large network that tests for pollution.

After getting DNA from pieces inside the air filters, the team was able to identify more than 180 different kinds of plants and animals, study writer Joanne Littlefair said. She is a biologist at Queen Mary University of London.

The filter data identified many different life forms, including grasses, fungi, deer, hedgehogs and songbirds, Littlefair said. Now, the team hopes to capture DNA data on ecosystems all over the world. Clare noted that even though biodiversity issues affect the whole world, it is hard to carry out widespread testing.

James Allerton is an air quality scientist at Britain’s National Physical Laboratory. He told The Associated Press that it is much easier to use capturing systems that are already in place.

Allerton noted that many countries have networks to measure air quality. Some also store their old filters for many years. He said such data could help demonstrate how ecosystems have changed over time.

Fabian Roger is working on a similar project at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. He wrote in an email to the AP that more research will be needed to see if data from the filters can show real biodiversity changes over time. Roger added that he finds it exciting that an existing system could help track wildlife across large areas in the environment.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

biodiversity – n. the number and kind of plants and animals that exist in a particular area

species n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants

filter – n. a device that removes a specific substance from something else

ecosystem – n. all the living things in an area and the way they affect each other and the environment


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