Airborne environmental DNA metabarcoding detects more diversity, with less sampling effort, than a traditional plant community survey


Background: Airborne environmental DNA (eDNA) research is an emerging field that focuses on the detection of species from their genetic remnants in the air. The majority of studies into airborne eDNA of plants has until now either focused on single species detection, specifically only pollen, or human health impacts, with no previous studies surveying an entire plant community through metabarcoding. We therefore conducted an airborne eDNA metabarcoding survey and compared the results to a traditional plant community survey.

Results: Over the course of a year, we conducted two traditional transect-based visual plant surveys alongside an airborne eDNA sampling campaign on a short-grass rangeland. We found that airborne eDNA detected more species than the traditional surveying method, although the types of species detected varied based on the method used. Airborne eDNA detected more grasses and forbs with less showy flowers, while the traditional method detected fewer grasses but also detected rarer forbs with large showy flowers. Additionally, we found the airborne eDNA metabarcoding survey required less sampling effort in terms of the time needed to conduct a survey and was able to detect more invasive species than the traditional method.

Conclusions: Overall, we have demonstrated that airborne eDNA can act as a sensitive and efficient plant community surveying method. Airborne eDNA surveillance has the potential to revolutionize the way plant communities are monitored in general, track changes in plant communities due to climate change and disturbances, and assist with the monitoring of invasive and endangered species.


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Environmental DNA, Methods Comparison, Plant Genetics


Johnson, M.D., Fokar, M., Cox, R.D. et al. Airborne environmental DNA metabarcoding detects more diversity, with less sampling effort, than a traditional plant community survey. BMC Ecol Evo 21, 218 (2021).