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Wednesday, Apr 30, 2003

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CCMB develops DNA test to identify animal species

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WILDLIFE poachers and traders involved in the business of animal products, beware! A new technique, soon to be available to law enforcing agencies, will quickly be able to establish the species of animals, whose parts have been confiscated, and help in tracking down the criminals.

The deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis method, developed by the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), just needs a drop of blood, tiny piece of meat, bunch of hair or any other mutilated biological sample confiscated to establish whether it belongs to human or animal, and if animal, to which species.

The technique claimed to be the first of its kind in the world, is universal in application and does not need any prior information about the origin of the biological sample. It just requires minute amounts of the sample and the results obtained are quick and authentic, said Dr Lalji Singh, Director of the CCMB.

Dr Lalji Singh said, "We are able to isolate the unique signature in the DNA fragment of the animal, and quickly match it with the rapidly growing database of signatures from the animal world that we possess today, to come to a solid conclusion." The CCMB already has a database of signatures of about 2,000 known animal species.

The CCMB has filed for a patent in the US as well as with the PCT (Paris Convention Treaty). It has also entered into a collaboration with Ingenovis, a bio-informatics division of I-Labs, a city-based company for automation and enhancement of the database through a software called Wildlife Tracing Net for Species Signature (WITNESS) developed by it, Mr Singh told newspersons.

Describing the development as a good example of collaboration between biotechnology (BT) and information technology (IT), he said, "We will build a database of 50,000 signatures of animals in the coming years, so that the tool becomes very useful in a range of applications."

The new technique developed by Dr Singh and Dr S.K. Verma uses a set of novel primers to amplify the DNA from the animal species and help in quick analysis. It has the potential to replace the expensive laboratory set-ups in which the vast collections of morphological and biochemical markers of different animals are maintained to provide scientific evidence on wildlife offences at present, the CCMB Director said.

With 25 cases solved in the country using the new method, the CCMB has started getting enquiries from abroad, especially from European countries, on wildlife. The work would be carried out at the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCoNes), which is being set up as CCMB Annexe-I on a seven-acre campus near the Nehru Zoological Park.

`Mystery' animal unmasked

A couple a months ago, the Chennai Zoo was losing Rs 3000 per day as it was forced to close following reports that a `mystery' animal was strutting around and causing a scare among the nearby villages.

Officials claimed to have spotted the elusive animal a couple of times near the herbivore enclave in the zoo and collected faecal material, but were puzzled over the identity of the beast. Faced with daily loss and pressure to solve the mystery of the strange visitor, the zoo authorities sent the faecal material for DNA analysis to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology here.

Within 36 hours, the CCMB scientists analysed the sample and established that the `mystery' animal was a leopard. The zoo personnel later laid a trap and caught the animal, which turned out to be an adult male, which was in heat and visiting the zoo from the nearby forest area.

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