The big picture: Scientists from Queen Mary University in London have shown for the first time that it’s possible to collect DNA from the air. What started out as an ecological assessment could end up having a profound impact on all sorts of fields including forensics. Imagine being convicted of an unlawful act based on DNA evidence collected from the air at the scene of a crime.

As part of a study recently published in the journal PeerJ, the scientists collected air from a room that had previously housed naked mole-rats. Using existing techniques, the team checked the sample for DNA sequences and found mole-rat DNA.

Dr. Elizabeth Clare, lead author of the study and a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, said the finding opens up further opportunities for investigating animal communities in hard-to-reach environments like caves and burrows.

Perhaps even more interesting, they also found human DNA in the air samples, suggesting possible future applications in the field of forensics.

“What started off as an attempt to see if this approach could be used for ecological assessments has now become much more, with potential applications in forensics, anthropology and even medicine,” Clare added.

The senior lecturer from Queen Mary also said the technique could help scientists better understand the transmission of airborne diseases like Covid-19.

“At the moment social distancing guidelines are based on physics and estimates of how far away virus particles can move, but with this technique we could actually sample the air and collect real-world evidence to support such guidelines,” said Clare.

The team is also working with industry partners like NatureMetrics to determine how the method can be applied in other ways.

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