Field DNA techniques: how volunteers can get results
A makeshift lab in a remote part of Honduras is showing that successful research can be undertaken in highly unlikely locations. And this latest collaboration between Operation Wallacea and Salisbury University suggests that results from volunteers’ research can prove highly beneficial to professional scientists.
Whilst it may seem like a risky move to allow novices access to valuable biological resources and expensive techniques, in reality, conservation volunteers are an underutilised resource for DNA collection. Three things are necessary for this work: good training, creative application of molecular methods, and commitment of the conservation organisation. This is exactly what the scientific expedition group Operation Wallacea has done in collaboration with Salisbury University (Maryland, US).
A primitive research station has been established in a remote cloud forest in Cusuco National Park, Honduras. This location can only be accessed by four wheel drive trucks and electricity is available only with a gas-run generator for five-seven hours per day. This is the environment for our molecular lab. The conservation volunteers go through a week-long DNA field sampling course. The course is designed to train novices to extract DNA, make copies of it using a PCR machine (polymerase chain reaction), and to see the results of the PCR on a gel. Since conditions are not ideal for molecular work, new techniques or modifications of existing techniques must be employed.
Non-destructive sampling is used and one such field technique includes Whatman FTA cards, which bind DNA to a card and keep it stable at room temperature for 5-20 years. Another tool used is illustra PuReTaq Ready-To-Go PCR beads, which keep temperature-sensitive reagents in a small tapioca-like bead. All that is needed is to add DNA, water, and a primer to the bead to make copies of DNA in the field. The field lab is then the setting for research on population genetics of many plant and animal species.
This lab is evidence that even novices in molecular biology can be invaluable to professional scientists
Some examples of the work done in this makeshift lab include identification of chytrid fungus infected frogs (a disease associated with global frog decline), dung beetle and fern population genetics, and molecular sexing of birds. This lab is evidence that even novices in molecular biology can be invaluable to professional scientists, especially for the purpose of doing research in remote locations.