Biology

Scientists assess insect biodiversity by analyzing airborne DNA

Scientists assess insect biodi...
The air sampler used in the study works by sucking in air and swirling it through water, where any particles contained in the air get captured
The air sampler used in the study works by sucking in air and swirling it through water, where any particles contained in the air get captured
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The air sampler used in the study works by sucking in air and swirling it through water, where any particles contained in the air get captured
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The air sampler used in the study works by sucking in air and swirling it through water, where any particles contained in the air get captured

Scientists are already able to ascertain what species are present in aquatic environments, by analyzing the cast-off DNA which is present in the water. Now, for the first, a team has conducted an insect survey by analyzing DNA found in the air.

So-called environmental DNA – or eDNA for short – is contained in feces, sloughed-off skin or other biological material dispersed by living organisms on an ongoing basis.

In recent years, researchers have collected and analyzed aquatic eDNA to see what sort of corals are present on reefs, to check if great white sharks are in the area, and even to search for the Loch Ness Monster. They've also found early human eDNA in soil gathered from caves in Europe.

In the latest study, though, a Lund University team led by Dr. Fabian Roger set about looking for insect eDNA in air samples collected at three sites in Sweden. Overall, the scientists were successful, as 85 different insect species were identified – these included various types of moths, bees, beetles, flies, ants and wasps. The eDNA of some vertebrate animals, like birds and mammals, was also present.

That said, while the eDNA analysis did identify some insect species which were missed by other traditional surveying techniques, it also missed some that those other techniques caught. For instance, while conventional sticky traps collected 48 moth species in the surveyed areas, the eDNA of just nine moth species was found in the air – four of those nine were also caught in the traps.

Therefore, in its current form, airborne eDNA analysis is probably best suited for complimenting traditional surveying techniques, not replacing them. The scientists are confident that once the technology is further refined, however, it should provide a much more accurate picture of a region's biodiversity.

Source: British Ecological Society

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