Rapid DNA tests are a weapon that saves wildlife and imprisons traffickers

MATAMATA TURTLES, BACK TO THEIR HABITAT Shutterstock The Colombian Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN) authorities contacted Card...

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  • Rapid DNA tests are a weapon used to fight animal trafficking.
  • The species have to be returned to their place of origin so that they can survive.
  • Bees have a sense of smell that could help detect the coronavirus.

Miami Jun 9 (EFE News).- The fight against the illegal trafficking of animals in the world is gaining effectiveness with rapid DNA tests for threatened species of sharks, eels and turtles, which help bring traffickers to justice and expedite the return of seized specimens to their habitat. Colombian biologist Diego Cardeñosa, who leads the development of this new portable tool at Florida International University (FIU), says that the project was implemented for the first time in 2018 in Hong Kong to detect illegal trade in shark fins.

Rapid DNA tests: The idea is to quickly and inexpensively identify animal species to determine if they are on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the main international instrument to protect biodiversity. “When a container of fins without a CITES certificate arrives, the authorities visually check and if they suspect that there are CITES fins they use our protocol to be able to carry out the arrest”, he explains.

Rapid DNA tests are effective in live or dead animals

Rapid DNA tests

Cardeñosa has become an expert on Hong Kong’s multi-million dollar illicit shark fin market and has analyzed more than 15,000 samples since 2014. The researcher details that DNA tests are just as effective regardless of whether they are dead or living animals and that in the case of fins they have identified the species even with samples that have been processed with chemicals. He says that thanks to the speed of the tests, in May 2020 a “historic” seizure of 26 tons of shark fins from Ecuador and cut off from some 38,000 animals was achieved in Hong Kong, when it was precisely determined that they were indeed species of threatened sharks.

Of the hundreds of shark species that are traded internationally, about 17 are on the CITES list, including the silky and the hammerhead. The test “can be designed literally for anything that has DNA,” he says. The FIU researcher says that more and more authorities from various countries are contacting them for instant identification of threatened species. Spain for tunas, Guatemala, Belize and Indonesia for sharks, Peru for ornamental fish and Colombia for matamata turtles, birds and freshwater rays. He assures that the goal is for this type of methodology “to become routine in the world to help fight illegal wildlife trafficking.”



The Colombian Criminal Investigation and Interpol (DIJIN) authorities contacted Cardeñosa to quickly distinguish between his two species of the matamata turtle: the Orinoco and the Amazon, both affected by illicit trafficking, which trades them alive for up to 300 Dollars. The biologist explains that another benefit of the rapid DNA test kit is to return the animal to its specific habitat and as soon as possible to reduce mortality, and also the costs of the test. Matamata tortoises are very easy to recognize with the naked eye, without the need for DNA tests, since it is a species with a very rare appearance, with a head and neck with small protrusions. It is an unmistakable tortoise, it has a brown or blackish shell about 45 centimeters long and a triangular, flattened and elongated head.

However, thanks to the tests, the Colombian authorities were able to return to the Orinoco more than 2,000 hatchlings of these turtles seized in 2020 in Colombia and there are other “thousands” recently seized in the process of relocation. Although they look almost identical, one of the turtles lives exclusively in the Orinoco river basin and the other in the Amazon river basin.

It is important that they return to where they should return


If these animals are returned to the wrong place it can have detrimental impacts on other native turtles, says the expert. “They can interrupt the evolutionary processes of populations,” he adds. The method, which takes about two hours to give results and costs a dollar for each sample (10 times less than in the laboratory), also speeds up the return of the animals to their habitat.

Cardeñosa points out that trade in wildlife species is prohibited in Colombia and that in particular the authorities have identified Peru as the final destination of the matamata. This turtle, which prefers slow rivers, calm lagoons, swamps and swamps, is part of the endangered species in Colombia and therefore its trade is illegal in that country. In addition to Colombia, this turtle lives in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil and the Guianas.


DNA testing is a way to fight crime

The tests have also been used in Hong Kong to detect “mules” of the European eel, which is critically endangered and whose export is prohibited by the European Union. However, Cardeñosa says that many individuals of this species arrive alive to that Chinese city in the hands of plane passengers, who carry them in little bags of water. It details that only as of 2018 could its illegal traffic be detected at the Hong Kong airport by determining with the test that it was the European eel, and not another that is not prohibited, which led to a judicial process.

The only thing the authorities could do before was to confiscate the shipment of eels (a species that does not survive more than 40 hours outside its environment) and release the people who trafficked them, he says. Before, DNA samples were sent to the laboratory where a long process of “weeks and even months” was carried out, comparing them with the sequences of genetic material in databases, he details. EFE News

Bees trained to “stick out their tongues” when smelling covid-19

The smell of bees is impressive

The Hague, May 9 (EFE) .- Having a PCR has been an unpleasant experience for many of this pandemic, which has led a group of Dutch scientists to seek alternative diagnosis: to take advantage of the excellent sense of smell of bees to detect contagions, causing them to “stick their tongues out” every time they smell the changes that covid-19 causes in the human body. The coronavirus, like many others diseases, causes metabolic changes in the body that cause the body to emit a specific odor.

Faced with this, bees, which are capable of locating a flower several kilometers away, can be trained like dogs to recognize the smell given off by samples infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19 , and prepare them to be authentic PCR. They train in a matter of minutes, they are an accessible animal in all countries of the world and, although they cause phobias in certain people, bees can be somewhat more pleasant compared to the swabs used for PCR, which makes this technique, “BeeSense”, is very tempting, especially given the global shortage and the need for diagnostic tests.

Similar to dogs


“The wonderful thing about bees is that they have a very strong olfactory capacity, they are like dogs, and they can detect even minor changes. They can do fascinating things, ”Aria Samimi, director of the Startup InsectSense, who joined forces with the Dutch laboratory Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR), told EFE to do their tests and see how bees can detect whether or not a person is sick with covid-19.

Remember that the confinements decreed in different countries during the pandemic were because “we did not have sufficient diagnostic systems” to separate infected people from the rest, and this is something that “bees can learn in a few minutes, compared to dogs. , and as soon as they learn, they will be able to make the detections in a few seconds ”.

Just beginning

Scientists propose bees to detect coronavirus

The investigation is still in its early stages. More than 150 bees were trained in the laboratory with samples infected with SARS-CoV-2 from mink and humans, giving them a sugar water solution as a reward when they had to smell the metabolism related to covid-19, which they have been taught to extend the tongue to reach the sweet.

“By repeating this action several times, the bees associated the reward with the aroma as a stimulus. With this repeated conditioning, soon the bees began to extend their tongues just for scent, with no reward being offered as a follow-up, ”the scientists explain. If it goes ahead with all the guarantees, it can become a technique “very useful to prevent and manage future outbreaks” of any large-scale virus, says Samimi.

The bees would not be loose in spaces


“It is globally accessible, not only for developed countries but also for those with low incomes,” he insists. Samimi calms the most skeptical who put apiphobia on the table: the idea is not to let the bees roam around airports or hospitals, and stick out their tongues every time they smell covid-19. The approach requires a biosensor, into which the bees would be placed. People can breathe inside, or through another tool that brings the samples closer to the bees. Therefore, the next step is to work on the “scalability” of this approach and, since bees are accessible globally, the only thing that people need is a machine to be able to train these insects.

InsectSense has already developed several prototype devices that can simultaneously and automatically train multiple bees, and a biosensor that deploys the trained bees for diagnosis. “This technology can be a very effective diagnostic system for low-income countries that face challenges in accessing the necessary diagnostic infrastructure and technologies,” the company adds. In principle, there is also no danger of the bees spreading the disease: they are not sensitive to the virus and do not come into direct contact with it during the tests. EFE

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