Lab-in-a-box won't lie

Conservation: Portable lab makes possible quick identification of plants or animals in fight against smuggling

21 November 2017 - 07:15
By Graeme Hosken
DNA. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock DNA. File photo.

Like a fingerprint, DNA does not lie.

Now science, through the creation of multiple online libraries of the DNA sequences of endangered and invasive species, has added a weapon to the arsenal of wildlife crime fighters.

The Lab-in-a-Box was launched in the Kruger National Park on Monday at the 7th International Barcode for Life conference.

The "box" is actually a portable laboratory that allows rangers, police, ports-of-entry authorities and Environmental Affairs agents to detect quickly whether plant or animal species they encounter are endangered or invasive.

It is a potent tool in the fight against wildlife poachers and smugglers.

The Lab-in-a-Box is a portable DNA barcoding kit that makes the identification of species possible within a few hours. In the past, said wildlife crime experts, lab results could take up to a week to be available. The kit is able to improve detection and analysis and might also help identify poaching hotspots and trafficking routes.

Professor Paul Hebert, founder of the International Barcode for Life project, and director of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics at the University of Guelph, in Canada, said that many species were in decline, from large vertebrates to small insects and tiny plants.

"By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability it becomes possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere."

He said numerous species were becoming extinct before it was known what role they played in ecosystems.

"DNA barcoding provides the means to map and register life on Earth faster than ever before, creating an inventory of multicellular life."

Karabo Malakalaka, the Department of Environmental Affairs' head of bio-security at ports of entry, said the department was setting up bio-security capabilities across the country.

"Traffickers often disguise the species they are smuggling, making them difficult to identify. With these barcoding kits officials will be able to determine exactly the species they come across."

She said the kit was intended to fight a variety of wildlife crimes, including the smuggling of endangered species to stopping invasive species being brought into the country.

"The critical part of this kit is that it drastically reduces the time needed to identify plant or animal species that are found on people."

She said since 2015 the DNA signatures of thousands of species had been loaded onto the database.