Student's DNA device could improve ways of collecting data for endangered species

Media Relations Team, 09 September 2020

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Person in hard hat holding glass equipment up to tree trunk.

A novel device that extracts DNA from the air to determine what animal lives in a habitat is being developed by a UWE Bristol master’s student. Beckie Green is building a prototype of the handheld device, whose design has made it to the final of the Con X Tech Prize, an international competition that calls for innovative ways to solve conservation challenges.

The abDNA (airborne DNA) sampler consists of a vacuum pump that pulls air through a filter. A nozzle is placed inside a small space like a furrow, tree hole, or crevice when the animal is absent, and DNA present in the air from its fur, skin or faeces gets caught in the filter, which is later sent to the lab for testing. The pump is set to take the user just minutes to collect the sample in the field.

Beckie came up with the idea during her dissertation as part of her MSc Advanced Wildlife Conservation in Practice programme after realising that no other device to extract DNA in this way currently exists. She saw it as a system that could present conservationists with an easy, non-invasive way of monitoring species and potentially help their conservation.

Beckie said: “It has previously been hard to capture DNA samples because if we take bats, for instance, they sometimes live in small and awkward holes that are hard to access. The usual method is to use an endoscope with a light on the end, but this is very invasive and expensive because it takes time.

“Using abDNA is a non-invasive method that is better for animal welfare as the animal doesn’t have to be there during the procedure.”

The device could be used for a variety of animals such as badgers, mice, meerkats and eventually nocturnal primate species. It is seen as especially important for use with certain species where data is lacking. On the IUCN Red List, almost a third of species are considered to be data deficient, meaning there is insufficient information for an accurate assessment of conservation status to be made. Many of these, including over 700 mammal species, fall within the hard-to-survey category.

One such animal it could help conserve is the lemur species, which UWE Bristol is involved with in an existing conservation project. Dr Mark Steer, who is a lecturer on Beckie Green’s programme and is collaborating on her project, said:

“Some of the rarest lemurs use holes in trees as roost sites and refuges; if they leave DNA behind, we could get an idea of what they look for when choosing holes. Even in the UK, we know very little about the resting and roosting habits of many animals. This device could give us an opportunity to dig into some of these conservation questions that we have not had the chance to look at before.”

Beckie was inspired to come up with this device while attending the innovation and enterprise module on her course. “That then became the backbone of the project and submission for the competition,” she said, “ and I am really excited to be making this contribution to wildlife conservation, which I’ve always wanted to do.”

Dr Steer said: “A big part of this University is to inject enterprise and innovation challenges across many programmes. This is an example of how this has come to fruition and the module led to this innovative device.”

The team, which also includes Dr Ben Williams from the Faculty of Environment and Technology (FET), was announced as one of 20 finalists drawn from 360 entries. It was awarded $3,500 (USD) to develop the prototype, to be submitted to the competition by 18 October.

One of the other finalists is James Greenhalgh, a graduate from UWE Bristol who works for charity The Reef-World Foundation.

The overall winner is to be awarded $20,000.

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