How genomics can take on wildlife crime
We write a lot about healthcare here at FLG, but precision medicine is far from the be all and end all of genomics. Researchers from the University of Leicester are pioneering the use of DNA sequencing for a very different purpose: to combat wildlife crime.
Wildlife trafficking is a global crisis. Around $20 billion of animal parts are illegally traded every year, devastating already endangered species. Jon Wetton and his team from the University of Leicester have developed a method for detecting animal species, using real time genetic sequencing that picks up on ‘DNA barcode’ genes.
“This could be used to test blood stains on the machete of a poacher, identify bushmeat from endangered animals such as chimpanzees at local markets – and even detect the frequent illegal substitution of products derived from protected species in the caviar trade,” the University said in a statement.
Such is the potential of this approach for tackling wildlife crime that Jon and his team have been awarded a prize in the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, an initiative of the U.S. Agency for International Development with support from National Geographic, Smithsonian and TRAFFIC, to source innovative science and technology solutions to combat illegal trafficking of wildlife products.
And the sequencer at the centre of this project? Well it’s none other than our astronaut friend, currently on its way to the International Space Station, the MinION from Oxford Nanopore. MinION is currently the smallest commercially available DNA sequencer, and its portable nature has made the device very popular for field-based research, from tracking viral evolution to working with indigenous populations.
“This project builds upon research carried out in 2003 when I led the Forensic Science Service team responsible for introducing species identification by DNA into UK casework. Our method then was costly, as it required more than a day’s work in a well-equipped laboratory, but by using the MinION device we hope to achieve the same results about one hour from collecting a sample.”