Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

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The Challenge Blog

Spotlight: A handheld DNA sequencer to fight wildlife crime

A handheld DNA sequencer to fight wildlife crime

Welcome to an installment of our Spotlight series, each highlighting one of our 16 Prize Winners working to combat wildlife crime around the globe. Find out about all 16 Prize Winners here, and check back in on Mondays for a new Spotlight post.

The illegal trade in wildlife frequently goes undetected because evidence - bushmeat from a gorilla, caviar from protected sturgeon, a bloodstain on a poacher’s machete - often defies simple visual identification. Even whole animals intercepted in the illegal pet trade can be difficult to classify just by sight. “One of the current problems with wildlife crime investigation,” says Jon Wetton, co-director of the Alec Jeffreys Forensic Genomics Unit at the University of Leicester, “is that in order to identify species, you either have to have a specialist, or you have to send [DNA] away for laboratory analysis, which can take weeks or even months.”

To address this issue, the University of Leicester is testing a portable DNA sequencer to rapidly identify species in the field. “Effectively, when fully developed this machine will allow you to sequence the DNA of any organism, potentially anywhere, very quickly, with a minimal degree of training,” Wetton explains. Rather than waiting weeks for the results of traditional DNA lab tests, the Leicester team intends the device to work so rapidly that “while the potential offender is still there, while the evidence is still in hand, you can screen an item, determine whether it is from an endangered species, and then take the appropriate action,” says Wetton.

Working with partner Oxford Nanopore Technologies to test the device, the University of Leicester is developing the device’s forensic applications in-house. The Leicester team is also partnering with organizations, including Kenya Wildlife Service and Panthera to source relevant DNA samples to ensure accurate results. Funding is needed to scale the application of the portable DNA sequencer.

All of our Prize Winners, including the University of Leicester, are looking for partners, organizations, individuals, and funding agencies that can help them scale their solutions. If you would like more information, please get in touch at info@wildlifecrimetech.org

Find out about each of Challenge’s 16 Prize Winners and their game-changing innovations to fight wildlife crime here.



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