Scientists have taken a revolutionary approach to studying biological material in the atmosphere. They have developed a durable, sterilizable probe and holder system to capture environmental nucleic acids from the air. The collection has exceeded all expectations.
Using this innovative system, Kimberly Metris’s team at Clemson University in the United States performed aerial mapping of environmental DNA using a standardized and adaptable large-scale aircraft flight pattern. The objective of the study was to collect bioaerosols, which are aerosolized biological matter, at various altitudes above the main sources of emissions, and sequence them for identification.
The results of the study are striking. Using their sampling probe and high-throughput metagenomic sequencing, the researchers discovered the widespread presence of prokaryotic and eukaryotic environmental nucleic acids in the atmosphere, reaching thousands of meters above sea level in the southeastern United States. In particular, the study authors collected environmental chicken, cow and human nucleic acids at all altitudes to which the probe flew.
The researchers identified several common plant allergens from grasses, grasses, and trees, as well as species that are not commonly found in the air, such as garlic, revealing a great diversity of airborne biological material.
They also discovered pathogenic bacteria and bacteria whose presence in the atmosphere was previously unknown, but which are found in other extreme environments, such as deep-sea sediments.
Image of the aerial landscape captured from inside a small plane during one of the flights to collect floating biological material. (Photo: Kimberly L. Metris. CC BY)
The implications of this research can be far-reaching, with applications in biodiversity, wildlife ecology, biodefense, and pathogen and allergen surveillance. The study shows that bioaerosols can originate from natural processes, such as wind-induced pollination in fields and forests, and from human-mediated activities, such as agriculture, wastewater treatment, and various industrial practices. .
The study is titled “Aircraft surveys for air eDNA: probing biodiversity in the sky”. And it has been published in the academic journal PeerJ. (Fountain: NCYT by Amazings)