The researchers took air samples from a zoo and found DNA from nearby animals. They hope this work can be used to track endangered species in the wild.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
An essential part of protecting endangered species is identifying where you live, and that can be challenging. But now two teams of scientists have discovered a technique that might help. NPR’s Jeff Brumville has more.
Jeff Brumville, Belin: A few years ago, a Danish think tank launched a call for extraordinary ideas. Kristen Bowman wanted to come up with a crazy experience but she couldn’t think of anything.
Kristen Bowman: And in the end, I got so frustrated that I said, like, no, it must be even crazier. It must be like dumping an animal’s DNA out of the air.
Broomville: It sounds crazy, sucking random bits of animal DNA out of the sky. Baumann, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, suggested that she eventually secured funding and went to work.
Bowman: At first we had the hurdle of figuring out how do we get DNA out of the air?
Broomville: With a vacuum, it turns out. Like, they literally used a vacuum cleaner, and it worked. So that was easy. But to make the experiment work, they also needed a good place to look for the animal’s DNA, and a place with unique animals, preferably indoors.
Baumann: Then we realized we were based in Copenhagen. We literally have this in our backyard. We have Copenhagen Zoo.
(Audio simultaneous with the archived recording)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaks Danish).
Broomville: The zoo was built specifically for this experiment. Most of the animals are not native, so they really stick to DNA analysis.
Bowman: If we spot a flamingo, well, we’re pretty sure it doesn’t come from anywhere other than a flamingo enclosure.
Brumville: They sampled all over the zoo, and they were shocked. They caught 49 species of animals – rhinos, giraffes and elephants.
Bowman: We even spotted a guppy that was living in the pond in a rainforest house by vacuuming the air there. So it was absolutely amazing.
Brumville: They took their crazy result, wrote it as a scientific paper – and then, when they were getting ready to publish, something even crazier happened.
Bowman: We had a deadline to submit it to a magazine. And two days earlier, I started getting emails and texts saying, Have you seen this other study?
Brumville: The other study was led by Elizabeth Clare of York University in Toronto, Canada. It turns out that her team had done pretty much the same thing at a zoo in the UK, and she didn’t know about Copenhagen’s work.
Elizabeth Clare: I woke up to this outburst of text messages from my co-authors saying, There’s another paper. Have you seen it before?
Brumville: So the two groups reached out and decided to publish their findings as a pair.
Claire: We independently confirm that this works with each other and with everyone else. I think we both thought the sheets were a lot stronger together.
Brumville: The work appears today in the journal Current Biology. Claire says this is just the beginning. There are a lot of unanswered questions, like what is this DNA? Is it skin cells, hair or saliva? Also…
Clary: There were some species that we never discovered even though we knew existed.
Brumville: They still don’t know why, but Claire says that even if the uptake of DNA from the air isn’t perfect, it could potentially be very beneficial. It can help find endangered species in a dense part of the forest, even if they can’t be seen. In the end, Claire thinks more.
CLARE: I have this vision of a globally deployed sampling that can take DNA from all these different sources — from soil, honey, rain, snow, air, water — sequence it in situ, send the data to servers so we can really get some form of global biomonitoring. . We don’t have a coordinated system for that.
Brumville: She believes that the answers to some of the toughest questions in conservation are literally right in front of our faces, hanging in the air.
Jeff Brumville, NPR News.
(sound in sync with music)
NPR scripts are created on an expedited deadline by Verb8tm, Inc. , a contractor of NPR, and produced using a proprietary copy process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The official record of NPR programming is the audio record.