Researchers studying Earth’s biodiversity may have discovered a revolutionary tool as a happy accident.
Tiny bits of biological material caught “as a by-product” of air-quality monitoring have the potential to track changes in species distribution over time and expansive land areas, according to a team of scientists from the United Kingdom and Canada.
The secondary use of filters from air pollution detectors could become what amounts to a scientific twofer and what the researchers described as “game changing” for studying biodiversity. They emphasized that their method uses multinational infrastructure that’s already in operation.
At the heart of the discovery were particles of “environmental DNA” (eDNA) routinely captured alongside toxic particulates by pollution-monitoring stations in the U.K.
As reported by The Guardian, the scientists tested eDNA from two stations and identified organisms, including fungi, insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals. As The Guardian put it, the stations also “inadvertently hoovered up” plant eDNA of species ranging from daisies to cabbages.
“For the past two decades of my career, I’ve [assessed] exposure of the population to potentially harmful pollutants,” Andrew Brown, a principal scientist at the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory (and one of the paper’s authors), told The Guardian. “To find out this extremely well-established network can be used by an entirely different field of science … is extremely exciting.”
Scientists and citizens worldwide have been concerned by reports of accelerated rates of species decline and extinction connected to factors such as habitat loss and climate change. In 2022, the World Wildlife Fund documented a 69% decline in species populations since 1970. Yet part of the trouble addressing the problems has been pinpointing how populations change over time.
In their paper, the biologists described how their field has had issues quantifying biodiversity due to a perceived lack of monitoring ability. They argue that their solution challenges this notion and could provide a “vault of biodiversity data” that does not affect the pollution monitors’ ability to do their job.
In fact, the study demonstrated a collection of eDNA from an eight-month-old monitoring filter that had been held at room temperature and suggested that frozen filters could be useful for decades. Encouraging their delightfully nerdy form of reuse, the researchers have since requested that monitoring stations hold onto used filters for further analysis.
The scientists’ technique offers a way of recording plants and animals without disturbing them through collection or traps and without requiring animals to be within range of cameras or audio recorders.
This admirably noninvasive method of conducting research might inspire nonscientists to live well alongside wildlife and help preserve biodiversity, as well. Taking steps such as “rewilding” a yard can save money, water, and energy — while creating aesthetically pleasing habitats and reducing lawncare-associated pollution.
Meanwhile, the scientists look forward to expanding the use of pollution monitors for biology.
“The potential of this cannot be overstated,” Joanne Littlefair, lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and the study’s lead author, told The Guardian. “Almost every country has some kind of air pollution-monitoring system or network … This could solve a global problem of how to measure biodiversity at a massive scale.”
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