Biology professor’s eDNA discovery earns top spot at Gizmodo Science Fair

Molecule of DNA forming inside the test tube equipment

Assistant Professor Elizabeth Clare, in York University’s Faculty of Science, recently demonstrated the possibility of assessing the range of animal species inhabiting a given locale using environmental DNA sampled from the air – a breakthrough that placed her among Gizmodo Science Fair 2023 winners.

The research paper from Clare’s team, “Measuring biodiversity from DNA in the air,” represents a significant leap forward in the applicability of environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling for two reasons – first of which is that, prior to the team’s demonstration, eDNA had only been reliably collected from water and soil samples, not taken from the air.

Elizabeth Clare close-up portrait
Elizabeth Clare

The second reason is that while Clare and her team conducted research at Hamerton Zoo Park in the U.K., another team – led by Kristine Bohmann from the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen – independently conducted similar tests at the Copenhagen Zoo. The matching results of both studies were then published in the same journal, Current Biology, a coincidence that both teams agree reinforce their findings.

Clare’s study initially began in a lab when her team successfully identified naked mole rat DNA captured in an air sample taken from their tunnel. From that proof-of-concept, the team then scaled up the experiment. Once at the zoo, the team used sensitive filters attached to vacuum pumps to collect more than 70 air samples from different locations around the park, both in and outside of the animal enclosures.

“When we analyzed the collected samples, we were able to identify DNA from 25 different species of animals, such as tigers, lemurs and dingoes, 17 of which were known zoo species. We were even able to collect eDNA from animals that were hundreds of metres away from where we were testing without a significant drop in the concentration, and even from outside sealed buildings. The animals were inside, but their DNA was escaping,” says Clare.

By demonstrating that non-invasive sampling could reveal the extent of the biodiversity in a specified habitat, Clare and her team hope that their research will provide the foundation for new testing protocols that enhance global conservation efforts.

For its recognition at this year’s Gizmodo Science Fair, Clare’s research project now resides in a league of landmark academic achievements which includes: a new, environmentally-friendly centrifugal launch system for satellites; the image processors used to render photos from the data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope; an experimental vaccine for treating and preventing the spread of breast cancer; among many others.

For more details on the research conducted by Clare’s team, visit the York University Faculty of Science.