An international team of researchers has discovered that thousands of ambient air quality monitoring stations around the world are doing more than recording just atmospheric pollutants and dust, they are also likely collecting biodiversity data in the form of environmental DNA (eDNA). Until now it was thought that worldwide biodiversity monitoring simply didn’t exist

Until now, no one had considered that these air quality monitoring stations could be collecting and storing eDNA data on birds, bees, ticks, fungi, insects, plants and mammals across the globe as a byproduct of their regular function. But it is exactly what’s needed to monitor biodiversity at a scale that’s never been possible before and could also to potentially tap into the decades of historic eDNA biodiversity data on filters squirrelled away for years.

The discovery came about when researchers, including Joanne Littlefair and York University Assistant Professor Elizabeth Clare, proved that the presence of individual species can be detected by eDNA in the air. That would have been the end of the story, had Dr James Allerton and Dr Andrew Brown, two scientists at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NTL) not seen that research. 

Allerton said: ‘We were routinely collecting particulate matter looking to measure pollutants in air but when we saw the work, we realised maybe we were sitting on something much more valuable.’

After contacting Littlefair and Clare to ask if it was possible their monitors were collecting this information, an experiment was devised. 

An air quality station was set up in a large London park, collecting samples for an hour, a day and a week, and these were compared to eight-month-old samples from a public station in Scotland.

At Queen Mary University of London, Littlefair handled the samples, while Clare and grad student Nina Garrett analysed the data at York.

Elizabeth Clare: ‘We were surprised by the diversity of life we were able to survey with one approach, almost unheard in this field of science. In these two locations, we simultaneously detected the eDNA of 34 bird and 24 mammal species, a wide variety of insects, crops, pathogenic fungus, lovely wildflowers, ornamental garden plants and grasses.

‘We found species of interest, such as hedgehogs, along with badgers, deer, dormice, little owls, smooth newts, songbirds and 80 different kinds of woodland trees and plants – oak, linden, ash, pine – it was all there collected on these tiny filters. It’s unbelievably exciting.’

Dr Andrew Brown: ‘The beauty of the idea is we are making use of something that already exists. If networks of air samplers around the world are all collecting similar material – just as a part of their regular functioning – it’s an incredible resource.’

‘The potential of this cannot be overstated. It could be an absolute gamechanger for tracking and monitoring biodiversity,’ says Dr Joanne Littlefair of Queen Mary University of London and first author of the paper. ‘Almost every country has some kind of air pollution monitoring system or network, either government owned or private, and in many cases both. This could solve a global problem of how to measure biodiversity at a massive scale.’

Read the published paper Air-quality networks collect environmental DNA with the potential to measure biodiversity at continental scales.

Auchencorth Moss near Edinburgh
National Physical Laboratory / Local Site Operator