Q&A with Conservation Geneticist Natalie Schmitt

Photo © Natalie Schmitt.

This is a very special post. A few weeks ago, I shared an article about a DNA field kit that could revolutionize snow leopard conservation. This kit, developed by Dr. Natalie Schmitt, will allow researchers to test scat (poop) that they find in the field. If it belongs to a snow leopard, the field kit will change color. This will dramatically reduce identification errors, which will make it easier to study elusive animals like snow leopards.

Dr. Natalie Schmitt has agreed to do a Q&A for this blog. I sent her a list of questions about her and her field kit, and her answers are below.

How does the DNA Field Kit work?
Dr. Natalie Schmitt, the creator of the DNA field kit, in Antarctica. Photo © Natalie Schmitt.

The DNA field kit will work in a very similar way to a pregnancy test. Essentially, it is a paper-based biosensor which uses special recognition sequences, already printed onto the paper, to recognise and bind to the DNA of a target species. Once this binding occurs, a DNA replication enzyme, also printed onto the paper, will replicate the DNA of the target species to produce lots of copies via a process known as rolling circle amplification.

Then using clever chemistry, the replicated DNA is linked to a colour response. So if the special recognition sequences don’t recognise the DNA, there will be no colour change and therefore the animal is not your target species.

Essentially, this will be a paper device that you place your biological sample onto – whether that be faeces, skin or bone. Add some lysing and washing reagents to capture the DNA, and with the reagents already dried and printed onto the paper, the reaction occurs immediately with little risk of error.

Why have you chosen to focus on snow leopards first?

I’ve always been interested in developing innovative techniques to help study rare and elusive species, and the snow leopard is one of the rarest and most elusive of all. There is a saying by local villagers in some of the rural areas of Nepal, that to see a snow leopard is more difficult than seeing God.

Ranging between Afghanistan and China throughout the largest and most inhospitable mountains in the world, very little is known about snow leopards; we need to understand them more if we are to properly protect them. Through the identification of animals from their droppings we can gain an accurate estimate of population abundance, and the kit will be particularly useful for the detection of elusive species like snow leopards where scats are difficult to identify.

The portability and affordability of the kit will also make it easier to detect species inhabiting challenging terrain, and in countries where conservation funding is limited. Once identified, those samples can be brought to the lab for further analysis of diet and disease.

Analyzing scat is an important part of studying elusive species like snow leopards. Photo © Natalie Schmitt.

Snow leopards have also suffered at the hands of illegal poachers, prized for their skin and bone. So a simple DNA detection kit can also be used by customs officers to rapidly identify their remains and trace poaching hotspots and trafficking routes, determine the geographic origin and age of the product, and assist law enforcement officers to prevent future crimes.

What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome to create the DNA Field Kit?

The challenges to just be able to start on the development of this tool have been immense. It has taken close to 3 years to find the right people to help me, as well as obtain a small amount of funding to get started. These people had to be special: they needed to have the expertise, insight and shared passion as I knew we’d all be in this for the long haul. I also needed them to be supportive, as this was such a leap of faith for me.

To pursue this dream I gave up a career path studying whales, sacrificed a home, a relationship, being close to friends and family, and any sort of financial security.

It’s amazing what happens though when you’re able to let go and have faith that you’re onto a good thing that could potentially be very helpful. I found wonderful allies in a clever lab at McMaster University in Canada, Panthera (a big cat conservation NGO), and the Centre for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal.

Natalie and part of the crew from the Centre for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal. Photo © Natalie Schmitt.

Finally, the support of the public in donating money and sending supportive messages has been so uplifting….I consider this their project too. So you see I have a big and beautiful team behind me now.

You recently made a trip to Nepal. What was the purpose of this visit, and what did you learn?

I recently followed the team at the Centre for Molecular Dynamics in Nepal into the Kingdom of Mustang near the Tibetan border to learn about what I’m up against in designing this field kit. What I discovered was that finding the remains of rare and elusive species like snow leopards is not possible without the help of local people.

However, we need to help them first. We need to find ways to protect their livestock from being taken by snow leopards and other predators, and then help them to see the value in protecting these species. I’m hoping to organise a trekking expedition in the near future to raise money to build corrals to protect livestock for some of these villages, but more will need to be done to help local communities.

It was a truly humbling experience.

How can readers support your work?

Readers can support the work by going to www.natscatsdna.com, subscribing to my blogs, and making a donation if they feel so moved. I’d love as many people to be a part of this project as possible – as without the help of people, we can never achieve truly sustainable conservation.

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