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Combatting Illegal Trade in Animal Products by Rapid On-Site DNA Sequencing

Principal supervisor: Professor Mark Jobling, Department of Genetics and Genome Biology

Second supervisor: Dr Jon Wetton

Industry partner: Twycross Zoo

Project Title: Combatting Illegal Trade in Animal Products by Rapid On-Site DNA Sequencing

University of registration: University of Leicester

Project outline:

Illegal trading in animal products is commonplace, widespread and diverse, ranging from substitution of low-value meat from one species into foodstuffs advertised as containing another (e.g. the 2013 horse meat scandal), fraudulent misidentification of by-catch fish filleted at sea (estimated at ~25%), through to trafficking high-value, CITES-protected, endangered species between countries.

Once stripped of species-specific morphological characters many products can only be reliably identified by DNA testing, which has until now been costly and time-consuming, requiring both bulky specialist equipment and highly trained lab personnel. However, a recent development in third-generation DNA sequencing, the Oxford Nanopore Technologies (ONT) MinION, offers the possibility of affordable and portable DNA sequencing capacity at a food processing plant, quayside or customs post, providing rapid confirmation of species of origin and the option to seize illegal products and detain those trading in them on the spot.

We intend to develop and test a universal species ID test applicable to all these scenarios in partnership with the East Midlands Zoological Society (Twycross Zoo) and our collaborators at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The test will build upon methods we are currently developing with ONT to preferentially sequence mitochondrial DNA and compare results with the BOLD & GenBank databases of species-specific mtDNA sequences that already cover many species affected by illegal trade. The student will exploit a number of products planned for release next year to meet ONT’s declared aim of allowing “anyone to sequence anything, anywhere”.

ZSL has been working with the Mongolian Government to tackle the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) since 2013, building law enforcement capacity and raising awareness within local communities. Mongolia is a key source and transit country for IWT, driving catastrophic declines across a broad spectrum of Mongolia’s wildlife populations, including most of their iconic medium and large-sized mammals. Unfortunately many of its frontline law enforcement officers are unable to identify seized wildlife products. This project will seek to trial the use of nanopore sequencing at key IWT border and market hotspots as a proof of concept to aid the rapid and accurate identification of (previously unidentifiable) wildlife products such as meat, fur and traditional medicine ingredients and in the long-term, establishing a chain-of-evidence to aid ultimate prosecution of illicit wildlife product smugglers. We will also explore the global issue of bushmeat, which threatens not only wild species but also human consumers exposed to pathogens borne by them (which can also be detected by nanopore sequencing).

Impact of project:

A simple, rapid and highly discriminating species identification tool that is cheap, robust and can be performed outside of traditional laboratory settings will have many potential applications which we will aim to test during the course of this studentship with a wide range of samples provided by our collaborators.

The student will gain a deep understanding of nanopore sequencing, novel targeted sequencing approaches and the development of sample preparation methods. They will learn about the role of science in conservation policy and the types of environment and scenarios where a species identification test can play a vital role. It will provide them with an opportunity to establish protocols that can be used as routine practice by non-scientists and to validate a test within a typical working environment. Using ONT’s rapidly evolving range of sample preparation methods they will be able to investigate applications in the field with other interested parties.

Contact: Professor Mark Jobling, University of Leicester