Aimed at sharpening conservation efforts, the international Barcode of Life (iBoL) project on Monday launched its Lab-in-a-Box portable deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) barcoding kit, which enables rapid species identification for port of entry officials within a few hours.
The launch took place during the seventh iBoL conference at the Kruger National Park, in South Africa, which is home to many threatened animal and plant species, including rhinos, elephants and wild African dogs.
"We know 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. 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,” iBoL founder and University of Guelph Centre for Biodiversity Genomics director Professor Paul Hebert explains.
“It is certain to improve our capacity to care for the species that not only enliven our planet, but provide essential ecosystem services,” he adds.
In developing countries, where inspectors at ports of entry may have limited taxonomic knowledge and expertise, the need for rapid DNA identification is even more pressing, Lab-in-a-Box creator Sujeevan Ratnasingham says.
"Many threatened animals and plants are trafficked out of developing countries, which do not have adequate resources to combat these crimes. The aim of LifeScanner Lab-in-a-Box is to improve the situation by addressing two challenges, rapid detection and successful prosecution.
“It does this by reducing the cost of adopting DNA analysis infrastructure and by simplifying the use of DNA analysis tools. It builds on the monumental work by the iBOL initiative in advancing DNA barcoding. The first implementation of Lab-in-a-Box is in South Africa's ports of entry," adds Ratnasingham.
Lab-in-a-Box depends on the Barcode of Life Data (BoLD) system’s database of reference DNA barcodes for the comparison of samples, says University of Johannesburg African Centre for DNA Barcoding (ACDB) director Professor Michelle van der Bank.
"The ACDB works closely with iBOL to extend the BoLD database, particularly for plants and to do advanced DNA analyses. We will be training port of entry officials in Africa on the use of Lab-in-a-Box and will be a source of trained staff to advance this work," adds Van der Bank.
HOW WILL IT HELP?
Wildlife traffickers do their best to make animal and plant parts unidentifiable. When customs officials find bones, they can only speculate whether it belonged to tigers, which are threatened with extinction with an international convention forbidding any trade of parts, or if it belonged to African lions.
No parts from wild populations of African lions may be traded, but a global quota for captive-bred animals is still to be determined.
Local flora faces the same challenge, as officials might not know whether they are dealing with an almost extinct encaphalartos cycad; or popular garden plants such as Asian cycads which look almost identical as seeds or seedlings.
Prior to the introduction of Lab-in-a-Box, a sample was taken and sent to a laboratory to identify the fauna or flora involved. This was often a timely process.
However, through the Lab-in-a-Box’s rapid analysis of the DNA from the animal or plant part at the port of entry, officials receive an immediate, reliable result, which enables a range of enforcement responses.