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U of I researchers implement new elephant DNA collection technique


African savanna elephants roam the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa. The new DNA collection method tested by researchers from U of I, Denmark and South Africa would allow scientists to collect samples without immobilizing elephants. Rudi van Aarde, University of Pretoria. Photo provided courtesy of Diana Yates, University of Illinois News Bureau.

Scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana campus have begun using a new DNA collection method with specialized paper that can extract more environmental and health data from elephant dung.

According to a research article published in January, this technique makes transporting fecal data simpler and less costly. As the technology behind these cards develops, this DNA collection method can expand into the research of other species.

In the past, researchers used blood samples to capture elephant data, which made conservation efforts more difficult, said Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the U of I Institute for Genomic Biology.

“It’s very dangerous to try to get a blood sample from a wild elephant,” Flamingh said. “Oftentimes, you’re limited by the habitat … so you have to have a helicopter.”

Fecal data is one of the most accessible ways of getting data from elephants, Flamingh said. However, it wasn’t feasible until the DNA extraction technique improved.

Now, Flamingh said, fecal samples can be used to obtain data that was only possible by collecting blood or tissue samples.

She said this method also makes it easier to transport samples.  

“In the field, you don’t have access to refrigeration,” Flamingh said. “So, this protocol is developed in a way where you don’t require any advanced training, and the DNA collection card ... is stable at room temperature for months on end.”

A previous method involved storing the fecal sample in ethanol, Flamingh said, which is a highly regulated substance. Especially for international research, using cards made DNA collection much more accessible.

The new fecal collection method can also gather data from the elephant’s environment.

“When we analyzed the DNA, a lot of it looked like butterfly DNA,” Flamingh said. “At first, that was kind of a shock.”

According to Flamingh, butterflies get nutrients and moisture from mud and elephant dung, leaving their DNA in the process. Researchers could also assess the health of the elephant by determining whether certain viruses or parasites were present.

“I hope it can be used for other species,” said Alfred Roca, a U of I animal sciences professor. “Of course, each species is going to be different, and its poop is going to be different. So, who knows? But, it’s certainly worth trying.”

This DNA collection method could expand to other species in the future, Roca said.

“DNA sequencing technology has gotten cheaper, year after year,” he said. “The amount that you can produce has gotten better and better. So, the cheaper the technology gets, the easier it is to apply to fecal samples.”

This study was done in cooperation with the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) at the University of Pretoria, an organization that studies elephant ecology and conservation in Southern Africa, Roca said. 

Scientists from the research unit collected the samples from wild elephants and shipped them to the U of I research team, making the collection process easier and quicker, Roca said.

“They picked a broad set of elephants from different parks with different ecologies, different environments,” Roca said. “They were able to collect multiple samples from across Africa.” 

With COVID-19, the collection of samples became difficult, Roca said. COVID-19 disrupted travel in and out of many countries, which delayed many shipments. He said these  delays could have decomposed the samples and affected the DNA analysis.

“The field researchers were very important,” Roca said. “Without their help, it would have been impossible to do the study.”