'High Tech' DNA Detectives

by jeeg 12. August 2013 18:59

San Diego County Regional Occupation Program (ROP) Biotechnology students at High Tech High School (HTH) recently worked with the San Diego Zoo's Department of Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) to complete a successful DNA identification process of dried meat in what proved to be pioneering research for the preservation of endangered animal species in Africa.

The student's achievement paves the way for the identification of previously unidentifiable products and meats exported from Africa. To date, dried and seasoned jerky-type substances exported from the region have been notoriously difficult to identify.

The technology utilized in this project will give policing agencies the ability to identify which food substances contain bush meat, the term used to describe meat from wild game and can include endangered species ranging from gorillas and chimpanzees to the duiker. Identification of this bush meat will further enable authorities to determine whether illegal hunting and trafficking of meat from endangered animals has taken place.

During the project, 19 ROP biotechnology students were given three different samples of store-bought jerky to test using DNA extraction kits provided by the Invitrogen Corporation. The students ran sequencing reactions to identify which types of meat were present in the jerky samples.

DNA bar coding attempts to identify different animal and plant species through the use of extracting a gene code. This code is then compared to a national database, currently being compiled by the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL). When an extracted code matches a code in the database, the tested animal or plant DNA can then be categorized with certainty.

"This study and the exposure generated by it could potentially save the lives of some endangered animals," said Dr. Jay Vavra, ROP Biotechnology instructor. "This is powerful science coming from a class of high school ROP students."

Jay Vavra, Ph.D. and Oliver Ryder Ph.D., director of genetics for the San Diego Zoo's Department of CRES, developed the project. During this voluntary two-week program called "Intersession," students were dedicated to their projects eight hours a day.

"I lead a 13-person bio-tech team whose main goal was to isolate DNA using "˜Basic Local Alignment Search Tool (BLAST),'" said John Horn, a senior at High Tech High. "It's rare when a person can say that they were part of something that no one else in the world has ever done and that's where we are at today."

The majority of the project took place at High Tech High, although DNA sequencing reactions were carried out at the Zoo's CRES center. The hands-on program made HTH students familiar with methods of genetic identification of meat samples raising their awareness that in certain areas, most notably central Africa, the bush meat trade is significantly affecting wildlife populations.

"It was amazing to take what looks like a small drop of water, turn it into a string of A's, T's, G's and C's and hold the code to what may one day help save hundreds of endangered species," said Evan Morikawa, a senior at HTH.

Vavra said the implication of studies like this one will have a greater impact beyond their original scope.

"It's more than just identifying the meat, but coming up with solutions," said Vavra. "If more people know about this crisis and the different endangered species that are being hunted, it's possible to make a change."

HTH students will receive grants for future research and Vavra's class will next work to identify samples that have been confiscated from U.S. Customs.

"Students worked incredibly hard on this research that is really necessary in realizing an illegal and practically unnoticed trade," Vavra said. "HTH students made this discovery and will push to educate the public for action against it."

ROP is a professional career development program that offers a multitude of courses open to all residents who are 16 years of age or older. Through this public service, individuals can receive vocational and technical training.

Michelle Hackney, San Diego Community News

 

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