TRENTO — A torrential rain drenches the Mount Rungwe forest in Tanzania. Under a big blue tent, four researchers are patiently waiting in front of their Skype webcam. They have just sent their data via smartphones to the other side of the hemisphere — namely, to the press room of the MuSe, the Science Museum of Trento. The response they are waiting for will have to cross an entire continent.
The feedback arrives quickly: "The sample corresponds at 95% to the Arthroleptis xenodactyloides frog." The researchers smile. They're excited, tired and overheated because of the humidity. "It's a new species! We did it!"
Thanks to a portable kit, a DNA sequence has been decoded outside a laboratory for the first time. The kit, called the "DNA Field Lab," allows molecular analysis directly on the spot and sends collected data instantly. The new instrument is changing the face of biodiversity exploration.
This made-in-Italy innovation that has worldwide repercussions is the result of a joint project carried out by MuSe and the University of Verona in collaboration with Oxford Nanopore Technologies and Biodiversa of Trento.
The transmission of DNA data via smartphone is the symbol of a new beginning. This new technology also means reduced time and costs for DNA codification — although since it's a prototype, prices are not yet known.
The DNA Field Lab — Source: MuSe
Four Italian researchers decided to fly to Tanzania in order to test the kit: Michele Menegon and Ana Rodriguez Prieto from MuSe, and Massimo Delledonne and Chiara Cantaloni from the University of Verona.
"The DNA Field Lab means the possibility to carry out biological measurements in the highest biodiversity areas on our planet," Menegon says. "It's a fundamental step, in a time when the funds needed to safeguard the diversity of life on our planet are not enough."
The goal of these four "Indiana Joneses of genetics" in Tanzania is to discover small wild animals and decode their DNA — an operation that usually takes several months, but now takes just half a day.
A small sample of the animal's DNA is required. Then the extraction and amplification of the sample happens in a thermal cycler. The kit is also equipped with a fluorometer, while the DNA sequencing is interpreted by a third-generation tool slightly larger than a USB key and connected to the computer. There's no need for electricity: Instead, a battery and a 3G or 4G cellular data network are sufficient.
This revolutionary device not only allows biodiversity discoveries: It can also perform "real-time" sequencing of any biological material, in any part of the world. It could extend to medical analysis, customs controls and food safety checks.
"For example, it could help Doctors Without Borders in areas affected by Ebola," Delledonne explains. "Still, it will take a year, maybe two."
The next step is finalizing the system's development. Only after that will it become a widely used tool.