Cool Science
In Their Hands

February 18, 2016

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Photo Credit: ©WCS Wildlife Health Center
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Photo Credit: ©WCS Wildlife Health Center

In March 2015, a team of scientists, including Dr. Tracie Seimon (pictured left) and Dr. Denise McAloose (right) from WCS's Zoological Health Program, went on a 10-day research expedition to the high Andes mountains in southern Peru.

They were looking to test frogs (like the marbled four-eyed frog pictured below) at 11 sites for the presence of the chytrid fungus (Bd), a major contributor to amphibian declines worldwide.

Their highest research site was at 17,600 feet, where the altitude makes even walking and talking at the same time a challenge. There, they also field tested a new technology that could greatly impact their work and provide options for a number of other wildlife-related endeavors going forward.

The device is a handheld PCR machine. It looks something like a bloated TV remote, but it's far more sophisticated. It's used to make many, many copies of a specific segment of DNA—a necessary step for analyses and diagnoses. In the Andes, Seimon, McAloose, and the team used it to detect DNA from chytrid fungus.

The machine, which is still in beta testing (so not widely available), is solar powered and docks with an iPhone, which is used to detect the test results.

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Photo Credit: ©Tracie Seimon/WCS

In the past, the samples the scientists took from the field would have to go to a lab—the equipment needed to perform this step stretched across an entire tabletop and wasn't portable. And in some cases it could take months to years to get samples tested, given the rolls of red tape around obtaining the necessary export permits.

The portable technology now allows these scientists to get results in a few hours, and on site where the results can be immediately applied.

Once it's widely available, the handheld PCR machine will have applications beyond wildlife health too. A tool like this could allow law enforcement to identify on the spot the species that was the source of confiscated bushmeat. It could help researchers determine if a particular species exists in a given area by screening for environmental DNA. Or it could aid public health officials at the center of an outbreak in identifying the cause of illness on site.

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