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Your Signature in the Dirt You Tread

Left in the Dust

An evolutionary biologist at University of Copenhagen in Denmark has recently described a new, easier way to determine what animal species are present in a specified region. Previously, this required trapping or tagging organisms to determine what species were there. More recently, ecologists have been identifying organisms in an area using scales, skin, and even animal waste. However, Dr Willersev and colleagues demonstrated that assessing DNA from the dirt of a location indicates not only what species are present, but also their population [1]. Willersev’s team extracted DNA samples from the dirt of a farm and a safari park, places where animal species and populations were well documented. They amplified and then sequenced the genomic fragments present and compared the results with sequences in GenBank. The team was able to correctly predict all the large animal species present, except for a giraffe recently introduced into the safari park. The scientists also correctly predicted the population size for each species present after accounting for the weight of the animals.

Who would have thought dirt could tell us so much!?


  1. Andersen K, Bird KL, et al. (2011) Meta-barcoding of 'dirt' DNA from soil reflects vertebrate biodiversity. Mol Ecol, 21(8):1966–1979.

Author: Aftan Vander Zwaag is a Technical Support Representative at IDT.