New Device Promises to Help Apprehend Wildlife Poachers

January 12, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

The pocket-sized DNA sequencer the MinION can replace an entire laboratory and bring wildlife poachers and smugglers to justice faster and more affordably.

Credit: Oxford Nanopore Technologies

The MinION, the world’s first pocket-sized DNA sequencer, may be a game changer in the world of wildlife poaching. The device can identify the DNA barcode of animals and plants within an hour by sequencing a blood stain. This process usually takes about a week in a laboratory.

The 87-gram USB module, developed by British biotech corporation Oxford Nanopore Technologies, can easily replace almost an entire laboratory due to its speed and affordability.

With a price tag of only about $1,000, the MinION is used largely by crime-fighting agencies that need to acquire DNA evidence as proof. But now the device is generating more interest in the fight against wildlife crime.

One of the key questions when it comes to using the MinION to deter wildlife crime is how to identify the species of origin that has been harmed when investigating a suspected poacher.

Poachers and smugglers can be arrested more easily and more efficiently with the help of the MinION. The device could be used in-field in real time, which would help rapidly identify offenses instead of waiting weeks or even months.

These long wait times occur because DNA sequencing is outsourced from most agencies due to the lack of appropriate equipment. These delays have decreased the number of convicted poachers because samples can be compromised on transport or they take too long to gain results.

But the MinION could be a groundbreaking device to fight wildlife crime if combined with other inventions and innovations in recent DNA research. It could have the potential to correctly and quickly identify evidence not only of a certain animal species but also a specific animal crime.

By bringing together a database such as the Rhino DNA Index System (RhODIS), which collects DNA data from rhinoceroses that were victims of wildlife crime, and the MinION device, criminals could be linked to specific crimes.

According to Cindy Harper, who is in charge of RhODIS, the database “aided prosecution by linking criminals to the crime and increased sentences by implicating traffickers in specific rhinoceros crimes.” She also believes that combining RhODIS with a device like the MinION would have “great field application for immediate species.”

John Wetton, co-director of Alec Jeffreys Forensic Genomics Unit at the University of Leicester in the UK, believes in the MinION so much that he pitched a proposal to the Wildlife Tech Challenge competition. This competition, created by the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is used to promote ideas that use technology to fight wildlife crime.

Wetton’s entry and concept won him the funding to start necessary tests of the MinION when it comes to generating DNA sequences for poaching crimes. He hopes to develop these tests in collaboration with Oxford Nanopore Technologies, Kenya Wildlife Services, and the wildcat protection group Panthera.

Soon enough, wildlife protection agencies all will have access to the groundbreaking MinION device to bring more of these poachers and smugglers to justice.