Air Pollution Monitors Reveal Hidden Wildlife DNA

In a remarkable twist, air pollution monitoring stations have unwittingly become treasure troves of valuable plant and animal life data. Recent advancements in environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis have revolutionized wildlife surveys by enabling researchers to track biodiversity without physically encountering the organisms. Now, scientists have discovered that air filters used in pollution monitoring stations inadvertently capture and store DNA samples from the environment, providing a novel and extensive source of information for tracking species and studying ecosystems.

Environmental DNA consists of genetic material shed by plants and animals, such as cells, waste, and blood, that lingers in the air, water, or soil. Analyzing eDNA has transformed the field of wildlife research, eliminating the need for direct observation and capture of organisms.

Instead, scientists can identify species by detecting their genetic traces left behind in the environment. While eDNA methods have been revolutionary, they have been challenging to apply on large scales and over extended periods. However, a groundbreaking new approach leverages existing air samples routinely collected and stored at pollution monitoring stations to study air pollution and simultaneously track biodiversity.

The Convergence of Air Quality Monitoring and Biodiversity Research
James Allerton from the National Physical Laboratory in the UK recognized the parallels between his work monitoring air quality and a report on harvesting eDNA with air filters.

Collaborating with biologists who conducted the initial study, an international team has conducted experiments confirming that air pollution monitoring stations unintentionally collect and retain DNA samples that can now be analyzed. This unexpected revelation opens up a wealth of possibilities for studying biodiversity.

Elizabeth Clare from York University in Canada highlights the broad applications of this technique. By analyzing the DNA samples captured on air filters, researchers can detect the rise of invasive species, monitor the decline of native species, and even discover entirely new organisms previously unknown to science.

In their tests, the team analyzed air filters from monitoring stations in London and Auchencorth Moss near Edinburgh, identifying DNA from over 180 different plants, fungi, insects, mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians. The samples included hedgehogs, badgers, smooth newts, songbirds, trees, and arable crops.

Clare and her colleagues are now embarking on an ambitious endeavor to compile a global database of biodiversity information, both past and present. They are actively seeking standardized air filters from government and private institutions worldwide, intending to gather millions of historical samples. By analyzing these samples, researchers can generate new datasets that offer insights into various species’ historical distribution and abundance.

Douglas Yu from the University of East Anglia recognizes the value of utilizing historical samples to generate new data sets. However, he emphasizes that the true advantage of this technique lies in its potential to collect samples effortlessly in the future. This capability will aid in monitoring the success of biodiversity restoration initiatives, allowing researchers to track the progress of conservation efforts more effectively.