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Scientific team completes part of ongoing study on gene pool of 700 Lankan elephants

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by Ifham Nizam

An eight-member scientific team has completed a comprehensive part of an ongoing study on the gene pool of 700 Sri Lankan elephants.

Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) and Agricultural Biotechnology Centre (AgBC) of the University of Peradeniya, are conducting a research on DNA analysis of wild elephants in Sri Lanka funded by the Ecosystem Conservation and Management Project (ESCAMP).

The scientific team comprises Ranjan Marasinghe, R. M. R. Nilanthi Rajapakse, H.A. Bhagya Hathurusinghe, Chandana Sooriyabandara, Dr. C. H. W. M. R. Bhagya Chandrasekara, Nuwan Jayawardana, M. Madawika Kodagoda, Dr. R. C. Rajapakse and Prof. Pradeepa. C. G. Bandaranayake.

“The study will clearly indicate the differences of the Sri Lankan elephant as a sub species. Our molecular methodology is based on using elephant dung, and the test is similar to the Covid-19 PCR test”, Researcher R. M. R. Nilanthi Rajapakse told The Sunday Island.

“We have already sequenced and assembled the genome of the Sri Lanka Wild Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus), the type subspecies of the Asian elephant. Comparative genomics work continues with available Asian and African elephant genomic data with the objective of identifying specific set of markers for the identification of Sri Lankan elephants”, the team said.

The first part of the research focused on 100 elephants, and it has now increased to 700 with continued focus on elephants in the forest patches etc., they remarked.

The project aims to examine the within-species genetic structure of the wild elephant across its range to better understand how genetically distinctive regional populations are and deviations of Sri Lankan elephants with those of other countries and how that might affect its conservation.

Conservation and management of elephants in Sri Lanka has become an important issue given the escalation of the Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) and international trade of wild elephants.

The Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, is an umbrella species in tropical forests. Wild elephants play important roles in maintaining forest dynamics such as opening animal trails in the forests, creating open gaps that facilitate seed and acting as a seed disperser for large-seed fruit species. The conservation status of the Asian elephant has been recognized as an endangered species since 1986. Wild Asian elephants are currently distributed mainly in the South and Southeast Asia.

Habitat loss and fragmentation, anthropogenic disturbance, illegal poaching and HEC have been considered as significant threats to the Asian elephants, resulting in population decline and fragmentation. These threats resulted in skewed sex ratio and disruption of social organization.

Acquiring information of wild populations is important for effective conservation and management of wild elephants.

Wild elephants in Sri Lanka is estimated to be between 5,000 and 6,000, according to the last survey conducted by the DWC in 2011. This is a relative high number considering the small size of the country (65,610 sq. km) and the human population of over 21 million.

For management of elephants in the wild, monitoring the changes in the structure and composition of the populations would be far more useful than estimating elephant numbers.

Therefore, genetic methods will be useful for management and conservation plan such as individual and sex identification, population size estimation, population sex ratio, genetic diversity, relatedness among individuals in a population, gene flow among populations, detection of bottleneck event, phylogeography of particular species, detection of hybridization, providing evidence of illegal wildlife poaching, including being a tool for genetic management of a population and long-term monitoring of the managed population.

It provides genetic information of the populations that could not be obtained from field data collection alone. Genetic methods, on the other hand, provide reliable information on population structure and facilitate investigation of genetic effects on small and fragmented populations. Advance genetic methods also provide better estimations on population size with reasonable cost and time.

Further, tracking of ivory poaching would also be possible if a reference genetic database of the natural populations is available.

Molecular genetics studies on elephants’ date back to 1990s. Micro satellite markers have been the preferred choice and have played a major role in ecological, evolutionary and conservation research on elephants over the past 20 years.

However, technical constraints especially related to the specificity of traditionally developed micro satellite markers have brought to question their application, specifically when degraded samples are utilized for analysis. Therefore, the team analyzed the specificity of 24 sets of micro satellite markers frequently used for elephant molecular work.

“First, we optimized the DNA extraction protocol for elephant dung which can even be used for samples reach the lab within a week’s time because all previous studies depended on fresh dung samples collected less than 24 h time”, the team said.

“Comparative wet lab analysis was done with blood and dung DNA in parallel with in silico work. Our data suggest cross-amplification of unspecific products when field-collected dung samples are utilized in assays. The necessity of Asian elephant specific set of micro satellites and or better molecular techniques are highlighted”, the team pointed out.

The necessity of insilico analysis for testing specificity of SSRs is highlighted for other wild animals, for example, leopards. Nevertheless, the current study suggests that the analysis should extend beyond the human genome especially when dung DNA is used as starting materials. Therefore, the specificity of primers is a critical factor deciding the success of traditional SSR based methods adopted for such analysis.

Based on their study, no primer set out of 24 tested SSRs could be recommended for future work when the elephant dung is used as the starting material. If blood samples are drawn carefully with no human or other contamination, those with no multiple hits in the elephant genome, for example, EMU06 and EMU07 could still be used. As such, results of the previous studies done with elephant dung would be questionable with the evidence gathered from current findings.

“Nevertheless, no one could challenge the past since the revolutionary technologies pawed the path for the success of current studies. However, our results suggest the necessity of revisiting available methods. Alternatively, more specific,” the team stressed.



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Haiti police riot after crime gangs kill 14 officers

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Protesters attempted to break into the Haitian prime minister's residence (picture BBC)

BBC reported that Rebel police officers rioted in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince on Thursday following the killing of more than a dozen colleagues by criminal gangs.

The rioting officers blame the government for not taking action.

More than 100 demonstrators blocked streets, burned tyres, broke security cameras and damaged vehicles.

Local media said several officers broke through the gates of the prime minister’s residence and attempted to enter Haiti’s international airport.

Fourteen officers are thought to have died since the start of the year in various gang attacks on police stations.

Seven officers were killed in shootout on Wednesday alone, according to Haiti’s National Police.

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Gold-covered mummy among latest discoveries in Egyptian tomb

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One of four newly discovered tombs at the Saqqara archaeological site south of Cairo (picture BBC)

BBC reported that archaeologists say they have found a gold leaf-covered mummy sealed inside a sarcophagus that had not been opened for 4,300 years.

The mummy, the remains of a man named Hekashepes, is thought to be one of the oldest and most complete non-royal corpses ever found in Egypt.

It was discovered down a 15m (50ft) shaft at a burial site south of Cairo, Saqqara, where three other tombs were found.

One tomb belonged to a “secret keeper”.

The largest of the mummies that were unearthed at the ancient necropolis is said to belong to a man called Khnumdjedef – a priest, inspector and supervisor of nobles.

Another belonged to a man called Meri, who was a senior palace official given the title of “secret keeper”, which allowed him to perform special religious rituals.

A judge and writer named Fetek is thought to have been laid to rest in the other tomb, where a collection of what are thought to be the largest statues ever found in the area had been discovered.

Several other items, including pottery, have also been found among the tombs.

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Health crisis: GMOA calls for WHO intervention

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Alleging the government has failed to address the developing crisis caused by grave shortage of pharmaceutical drugs, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has called for WHO’s intervention.In a letter dated January 26, 2023, addressed to WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, GMOA Secretary Dr. Haritha Aluthge has raised concerns about shortage of pharmaceutical drugs, escalating prices of medicines and allegations of malpractices and corruption in procurement procedures.

The GMOA has released its letter to the media along with what it called a 10 fold plan formulated by an expert committee set up by the GMOA.

The following are the GMOA’s proposals:

1. To appoint a high-level coordinating committee within the Ministry of Health to ensure effective communications and coordination between following institutions, identified as responsible for the whole exercise. (a) Ministry of Health focal points (b) Medical Supplies Division (MSD) (c) State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) d. State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC) e. National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) Monthly progress review meetings of aforementioned committees are to be ensured, with Chairmanship of Secretary, Ministry of Health or his representative. Quarterly review with Minister of Health to facilitate arriving at essential policy decisions.

2. To ensure Transparent Procurement Procedures, where every interested citizen should be entitled to know the true facts.

3. To upgrade the available computer software programme to match the current needs and to ensure more efficiency in procurement procedures.

4. To appoint a technical committee to study Auditor General Reports with regard to procurement Procedures of last 5 years and actions to be declared with specific time frame to implement recommendations of the Auditor General.

5. Review the recent Presidential Investigation Commission reports and initiate urgent actions to file legal action against the respondents. Remove all those officials who are accused through these reports of malpractices, from their current posts, until the verdicts are delivered.

6. To minimise emergency purchases of Medicinal drugs and ensure the transparency of that process through progress reports on emergency purchases, which is to be published on a monthly basis.

7. To identify alternative modes for distribution of pharmaceutical drugs to peripheral stations (e.g.: Public Transport services with identified modifications)

8. To open an “Information Desk” at the Ministry of Health to effectively communicate with and guide the donors of pharmaceutical items.

9. To fill the existing vacancies at National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA), following stipulated acceptable pathways and activating all the sub committees within NMRA.

10. To declare a relief package to reduce the prices of essential medicinal drugs, through the upcoming interim budget.

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