Zoo Study Finds Animal DNA Floating in Air

A new study suggests, Friday, January 7, 2022 – that you take a whiff of air in a zoo and inhale the animals’ DNA – not just the smell of the food they eat or their waste.

Two teams of researchers took air samples from local zoos, and collected enough DNA to identify nearby animals. They say their study could become a valuable, non-invasive tool for tracking biodiversity.

“Obtaining ecological DNA from vertebrates makes it possible for us to discover even animals we can’t see there,” said researcher Christine Baumann, lead researcher at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

While terrestrial animals can be monitored by trail cameras or checked for footprints or feces, the drawback of these methods is that they can involve extensive fieldwork and require the animal to be physically present.

This “environmental DNA,” or eDNA, is a well-established technology frequently used to monitor aquatic organisms by sequencing eDNA from water samples.

“Compared to what people find in rivers and lakes, monitoring airborne DNA is really difficult, because DNA appears to be very dilute in the air,” said Elizabeth Clare, lead researcher on the team at Queen Mary University of London. But our zoo studies have yet to fail at different sampling, genetics, locations and experimental methods. Claire, now at York University in Toronto, said:

The two groups published their “proof of concept” research Jan. 6 in the journal current biology.

Each team conducted their individual studies at a local zoo, collecting specimens in both enclosed areas such as the tropical house, indoor stables, and outdoor and outdoor enclosures.

To collect airborne eDNA, the Copenhagen team used a fan, like the one used to cool a computer, and attached it to a filter. The fan draws air from the zoo and its surroundings. This can contain genetic material from breath, saliva, fur or faeces, although the exact source has not been established.

After filtering the air, the researchers said, they extracted DNA from the filter and used polymerase chain reaction amplification to make many copies of the animal’s DNA. They processed millions of DNA sequences and compared them to a reference DNA database to identify animal species.

Claire said in a press release that the samples contained trace amounts of DNA, according to forensic medicine.

Claire’s team discovered the DNA of 25 species of mammals and birds from within the nearby zoo and wildlife. Bohmann’s team discovered 49 species of non-human vertebrates, including those of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Coincidentally, researchers at two sites came up with the same idea at the same time, but after viewing each other’s articles on a preprint server, the two groups decided to jointly submit their manuscripts to the journal.

“We’ve decided we’d rather do some gambling and say we’re not ready to compete in this,” Claire said. “Actually, it’s such a crazy idea, we’d better have independent confirmation that this works. Both teams are very excited to see this technology evolve.”


  • press cellPress release, January 6, 2021

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