Using portable nanopore DNA sequencers to combat wildlife crime

A team from our University has been awarded a prize for their proposal to crack down on wildlife crime using a portable DNA sequencing device, the MinION - developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies - to read the ‘barcode genes’ of animals affected by illegal trafficking. 

The method, proposed by Dr Jon Wetton from the Department of Genetics, uses DNA barcode genes to identify animal species in real time. 

This could be used to test blood stains on the machete of a poacher, identify bushmeat from endangered animals such as chimpanzees at local markets - and even detect the frequent illegal substitution of products derived from protected species in the caviar trade.

To do this the team will use the MinION, a portable USB-powered DNA sequencer developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.  The team will also explore the use of VolTRAX, a sample preparation device designed to allow non-scientists to prepare samples outside a laboratory environment. Together these technologies are intended to fully automate DNA analysis from applying an original sample of blood or tissue to comparing the analysis results in real time with a reference database of species-specific barcode gene sequences. 

Dr Wetton said: “This project builds upon research carried out in 2003 when I led the Forensic Science Service team responsible for introducing species identification by DNA into UK casework.  Our method then was costly, as it required more than a day’s work in a well-equipped laboratory, but by using the MinION device we hope to achieve the same results about one hour from collecting a sample.”

The Leicester team will collaborate with organisations working in the field such as the Kenya Wildlife Service and Panthera.