On-the-spot DNA testing kit will help fight wildlife trafficking

  Last updated January 11, 2018 at 10:46 am


A new portable DNA barcoding kit will allow officials to rapidly identify species from plants and animal parts carried by wildlife traffickers.

Credit: Alberto Masnovo/iStock

The Lab-in-a-Box field kit will also be invaluable for invasive species control at ports of entry, as well as large-scale citizen science projects.

It will reduce the time taken to get a reliable result on a sample form days to hours and is the brainchild of the international Barcode of Life (iBOL) project

“We know that many of the species that share our planet are in serious decline – from large vertebrates to small insects, from canopy trees to tiny understory plants,” iBOL Paul Hebert founder said at the launch of the kit.

“By coupling the power of DNA barcoding to identify species with portability, Lab-in-a-Box makes it possible for anyone to identify any species anywhere.

“It is certain to improve our capacity to care for the species that not only enliven our planet, but provide essential ecosystem services.”

The test is expected to prove especially useful in dealing with samples of plants and animals where the endangered, restricted one is similar in appearance to more common varieties.

It is, for example, hard to tell the almost extinct encaphalartos cycad from popular garden plants such as Asian cycas. It also allows the identification of potentially harmful invasive plants being shipped with perfectly legal pet fish.

The kit was launched at the 7th International iBOL conference at the Kruger National Park in South Africa, home to many threatened animals and plants, including rhinos, elephants and wild African dogs.

The creator of the Lab-in-aBox, Sujeevan Ratnasingham, said the device would also assist port inspectors in developing countries, who may have limited expertise in identifying animals and plants.

“Many threatened animals and plants are trafficked out of developing countries, which do not have adequate resources to combat these crimes,” he said.

Lab-in-a-Box depends on the Barcode of Life Data system (BOLD) database of reference DNA barcodes to compare samples to.

The African Centre for DNA Barcoding at the University of Johannesburg will be training port of entry officials in Africa in the use of Lab-in-the-Box and will be a source of trained staff to advance this work.

About the Author

Bill Condie
Bill is former Head of Publishing at the Royal Institution of Australia. Previously he was Publisher of the popular science magazine, Cosmos, based in Melbourne, Australia. Bill has been a journalist for more than 30 years and his work has been published in Cosmos magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.