Probes effective against illegal rhino and tiger trade

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POACHERS who disguise rare animal remains in a multi-billion dollar trade are a step closer to being caught out, according to scientists in Liverpool, UK.

The illegal wildlife trade goes to great lengths to cover up the movement of ivory, rhino tusks, tiger bones and other remains which can fetch huge sums on the black market.

To date, uncertainty about the origin of suspect substances at borders, ports and customs posts has allowed poachers the upper-hand and helped contribute to the deaths of tens of thousands of endangered mammals.

But proof of concept testing by forensic scientists at Liverpool John Moores University suggests that specialist probes can be used to rapidly detect the DNA of rhinoceros, pangolins and tigers.

Signpost to species

Reporting in the journal Molecular and Cellular Probes, and reported in the Financial Times the scientists identified DNA from the key target species in real time using a single tube and melt curve analysis.

Dr Nick Dawnay, of the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at LJMU said: “This is the first time such probes have proven effective in signposting remains of specific endangered species.

“It brings a simple on-the-spot DNA test a step closer and could provide a decisive new weapon in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade.”  

Nearly every part of a tiger is saleable, mostly to purveyors of Chinese medicine. Tiger tail is used for skin disease; the whiskers for toothache, the eyes as treatment for malaria; even the tiger’s nose is eaten to ease epilepsy and convulsions. Similarly, endangered pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are poached in their thousands for scales and their meat, a delicacy among some ultra-wealthy in China and Vietnam.

How it works

In laboratory tests using synthetic DNA of representative species, Dr Dawnay and his team found that HyBeacon® probes were sensitive enough to achieve species identification with less than 10 cells, and would allow the DNA identification of multiple seized items.

Added Dr Dawnay: “The probes work by fluorescing when they are attached to DNA and can be designed to match the DNA sequence of relevant species.

“A probe with a high percentage match will show a species specific peak temperature. The same probe on another species with less percentage matching DNA will show a reduced peak temperature. This way we can design probes to identify a number of different species.”

The probes were capable of detecting individual species in some instances but were limited to providing genus/family level detection in others.

The wildlife forensic community is currently developing a database which houses DNA sequence data from forensically important species. Once completed, it will allow new molecular approaches to support wildlife forensic investigations including the development of field-based assays for rapid sample screening at points of seizure.

'Development of HyBeacon® probes for the forensic detection of Panthera, rhinoceros, and pangolin species' is authored by Kimberley George, Alice Masters, Nick Dawnay, School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, UK and published in Molecular and Cellular Probes.


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