Swiss scientists have developed a proof-of-concept method to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) from the tops of high-arched trees, a rarely observed habitat. Rather than hire expert climbers to risk their lives to grab a tiny insect and a bird’s DNA, the team flew a harvesting drone into the trees to capture genetic material, giving them a clearer picture of the area’s organic breakdown.
The researchers used a quadcopter equipped with a sticky harvesting cage. But since tree branches can bend at the slightest touch, and the drone needs to touch the branches to collect DNA, it has a haptic-based control scheme that uses force sensors to measure the pressure between the drone and the branch. . Then, you adjust your landing accordingly, leaning against the branch soft enough to avoid dropping valuable material to the ground.
The drone’s cage then samples with an adhesive surface made of “duct tape and cotton gauze moistened with a DNA-free sugar-water solution.” The cage spends about 10 seconds perching on each branch and collecting eDNA before returning to base, where scientists retrieve the samples and send them to a lab. The drone in the experiment successfully collected enough genetic material to identify 21 classes of animals ranging from insects and mammals to birds and amphibians.
However, the scientists make it clear that this is a work in progress. For example, on the last day of research, the team noticed a drop in eDNA detection due to rain the night before, suggesting that the method only tells them which creatures have visited since the last downpour. In addition, they noted unexplained differences in the performance of their two collectors, highlighting the need for further research on equipment variances.
The researchers hope their work will make it easier and cheaper for environmental biologists to learn which creatures live in some of the hardest-to-reach places. The approach could eventually help the scientific community understand how environmental changes affect biodiversity, perhaps helping to identify vulnerable or endangered species before it’s too late.
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