Taking DNA Swabs from Leaves Verifies Diversity of Wild Animals in Rainforests and the Risk of Transmission of Infectious Diseases to Humans

Dr. Jan Gogarten and Dr. Christina Lynggaard collecting DNA from leaves
Dr. Jan Gogarten and Dr. Christina Lynggaard collecting DNA from leaves, © Andreas Sachse, HIOH/HZI

Dr. Jan Gogarten is a member of the research team behind this study run by the Helmholtz Institute for One Health (HIOH) in Greifswald and also a member of staff at the University of Greifswald’s Chair of Applied Zoology and Nature Conservation. After a Danish colleague had already proved that it was possible to gain and analyse animal DNA from the air, he concluded: “If animal DNA is in the air all around us, perhaps it settles and gets stuck to sticky surfaces like leaves. The rainforest and its plants are often called the ‘lungs of the planet’. Could the lungs of the planet represent the ideal place to sample settling DNA from the air?” He pursued his idea in the rain forest together with his colleague, Dr. Christina Lynggaard, who now also works at HIOH Greifswald.

The procedure proved to be an effective tool in the detection of wild animals whose presence is not always obvious in certain biotopes. This makes it relatively easy to collect data that can be used to recognise changes in the animal world. This can help to develop strategies for maintaining biodiversity. Furthermore, the method can be used to estimate the risk of the transmission of illness in areas in which contact between wild animals and humans is likely.

In Dr. Christina Lynggaard’s opinion, there is no reason why the swabbing of leaves cannot be performed in citizen science programmes. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, testing required automated extraction of nucleic acids from millions of swabs per day, and the analytical devices were spread to every corner of the planet. What if these instruments could be repurposed for using swabs to monitor animals on a massive scale?”

Further information
HIOH Greifswald’s website

Original publication
Christina Lynggaard, Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer, Colin A. Chapman, Urs Kalbitzer, Fabian H. Leendertz, Patrick A. Omeja, Emmanuel A. Opito, Dipto Sarkar, Kristine Bohmann, Jan F. Gogarten (2023). Vertebrate environmental DNA from leaf swabs. Current Biology. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2023.06.031
Current Biology: Cell Press

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