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DNA sequencing device could rapidly detect illegal wildlife products

Officials in Guangzhou, China, destroy confiscated ivory stocks. Ivory is commonly trafficked internationally, but border officials are often unable to confirm the identity of a given product. Ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products can slip through the cracks Officials in Guangzhou, China, destroy confiscated ivory stocks. Ivory is commonly trafficked internationally, but border officials are often unable to confirm the identity of a given product. Ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products can slip through the cracks
17 Jul
A portable DNA assay could revolutionise the way border officials examine suspected wildlife products, and the methods conservationists use to identify wildlife samples in the field

From remote monitoring devices to mobile apps for reporting environmental crime, technology has revolutionised the protection of the natural world. A group of scientists now hope to further democratise conservation through the creation of an inexpensive, portable, species-identification device. 

Currently, confirming the identity of a wildlife sample collected in the field, or at an international border, requires the use of laboratory techniques, or expensive and complicated DNA sequencers. ‘A huge challenge of conservation fieldwork is quickly identifying faecal samples on the spot,’ says Dr Natalie Schmitt, of McMaster University. She is co-developing the device with researchers led by Carlos Filipe at McMaster University, and the University of Calgary, with funding from the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), the Canadian government (NSERC) and Alberta Innovates. ‘With current methods, researchers have to wait as long as six months to get DNA results back.’

The team’s design is a portable DNA assay (an investigative procedure for measuring the presence and amount of a target substance), that can near-instantly identify what species a sample comes from with only a simple colour change. The methodology is based on earlier work on the identification of bacteria in food and water samples, conducted by Yingfu Li at McMaster University. ‘Current DNA sequencing technologies are hugely expensive and require significant training to operate. We’re creating an inexpensive paper-based device that will be as simple as a pregnancy test, that non-experts can use,’ explains Schmitt.

With a proof-of-concept study under their belt, the device could assist conservationists conducting fieldwork, and aid illegal wildlife trade monitoring. In both instances, usability and speed are paramount. ‘Many range countries for endangered species, such as the snow leopard, don’t have facilities to analyse DNA samples. In some countries such as Nepal, it’s even illegal to send wildlife samples out of the country,’ says Schmitt. 

source detectionConservationists often have to wait months to verify the identity of a wildlife sample. This delay has hindered critical conservation progress of snow leopard populations

When it comes to borders, it is hard to know how many illegal wildlife products have moved undetected. To the untrained eye, samples can look innocuous (tiger parts are often boiled into a paste and rhino horn crushed into powder). 

‘Without this kind of device, so many wildlife products are likely passing through customs without being picked up,’ says Schmitt. 

WildTech DNA 3D Rendering of DeviceA 3D rendering of WildTech DNA's portable device. Nearly as simple as a pregnancy test, the device will be able to tell conservationists and border officials whether a wildlife sample is from a particular species. Copyright: Design by Joseph Liddiard for WildTech DNA Inc. May 2020

Although the first target is to be caribou, a species at risk in Canada, the ultimate goal is to design assays for each of the Panthera species – including lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard.. These big cats are particularly threatened by the illegal wildlife trade. According to TRAFFIC, between 2000 and 2018, illegal products derived from 2,359 tiger individuals were seized worldwide – at least 124 tigers lost each year. 

The team is hopeful that the technology will allow widespread involvement in species protection. ‘We need innovative ways to build involvement in conservation,’ says Schmitt. 

The WildTech DNA device is a collaborative project between McMaster University and the University of Calgary, funded by the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), Alberta Innovates and the Canadian government (NSERC). 

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