Advancing our understanding of pathogen risks and overall animal health is essential for successful wildlife conservation. Infectious and non-infectious diseases threaten common and endangered species, and our capacity to diagnose infections and discover new pathogens in wildlife has grown tremendously thanks to molecular diagnostic testing. Using these techniques, WCS has discovered over a dozen new viruses in reptiles, birds, and mammals—and those discoveries have led to better conservation strategies. Examples include reducing disease risk in turtle reintroduction programs and developing ways to reduce the risk of Canine Distemper Virus infection in critically endangered Amur tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) in the Russian Far East.Gold-standard techniques include polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA sequencing. Molecular tests have been used to identify and characterize newly emerging or re-emerging diseases such as SARS, COVID-19, Ebola, and highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks. These and many other emergent diseases, including those of public health concern, have their origins in wildlife, and transmission from animals to humans is largely driven by human activities. However, most genetic tests were developed for humans, not animals.Over a decade ago WCS recognized that there was a clear need to adapt and apply molecular technologies to diagnose, discover, and understand the significance of infectious diseases in wildlife. To bridge this gap, we created a zoo-based molecular diagnostics laboratory, one of only a few in the world, at the Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Health Center. Our goal is to use molecular-based tools to support our conservation efforts, to better understand animal health, and to detect and discover disease risks in wildlife. For over 10 years, the WCS Molecular Laboratory led by Dr. Tracie Seimon, Molecular Laboratory Director, has performed in-house DNA and RNA-based disease screening and pathogen discovery to benefit not only our animals, but also our local and international field conservation programs. Our molecular tools have:
• helped government partners test illegally trafficked bushmeat confiscated at several US airports and helped to identify pathogens with the potential to infect both animals and humans in these samples.• strengthened forensic investigations by confirming the species of wildlife poached and illegally trafficked domestically and internationally, a critical component of WCS’s conservation efforts.As a global conservation organization with sites in remote and under-resourced settings, our team also needed a way to bring diagnostic tools wherever they were most needed. In response, we built a mobile laboratory that can be moved around the world to perform in-country diagnostics. Since 2010, WCS has deployed our mobile laboratory to many countries, including to Vietnam and the Russian Far East for pathogen testing, capacity building, and training; to Peru, Uganda, and Rwanda to test for amphibian chytrid fungus, the cause of global amphibian declines; and to Myanmar as part of pre-release health screening of critically endangered Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) to test for pathogens as part of the recovery and reintroduction program for this species. We have also used our molecular tools to screen environmental samples to detect the presence of the critically endangered Yangtze softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) in Vietnam and China. WCS Molecular Laboratory: By the NumbersResearch, Development and Testing• Over 50 DNA tests developed for pathogen detection in wildlife and species identification.• Three point-of-care field diagnostic DNA tests created, to diagnose Canine Distemper Virus in samples; identify scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) samples in trade; and identify Yangtze giant softshell turtle (Rafetus swinhoei) environmental DNA (eDNA), all of which are being used by our field programs.• Seven eDNA tests created to identify several species of North American turtles.• The first high alpine eDNA study performed, assessing biodiversity across the tree of life on Mount Everest.• Led the development and application of portable MinION DNA sequencing and a new bioinformatic pipeline called SAIGA to identify wildlife samples through DNA barcoding. • Performed over 17,230 diagnostic tests, including over 2,900 tests on zoo animal samples and over 14,300 tests on free-ranging wildlife samples.Training and Capacity Building• Five Molecular Post-doctoral Fellows and 10 undergraduate students trained.• Eleven mobile laboratory field deployments to enhance diagnostics by our health programs in the Russian Far East, Vietnam, Uganda, Rwanda, Myanmar, China and Peru.• Seven training workshops conducted to build molecular diagnostic and disease testing capacity in the Russian Far East, Vietnam, Uganda, and Rwanda.Scientific Publications and Media• Thirty-three peer-reviewed scientific publications.• Thirty media pieces (blogs, news stories, major media film/videos) highlighting our work.Funding• Over 1.8 million dollars raised from Federal and Foundation grants, private philanthropy and earned revenue.Looking to the FutureThe next decade for the WCS Molecular Diagnostics Program will be one of continued innovation. This includes an exciting new project to co-develop a DNA test kit to identify big cat species in the wildlife trade with the WCS China Program and the Nanjing Forest Police College Forensic Laboratory. The kit will be applied to test bones and other wildlife products like tiger bone wine to determine the big cat species used in its production. It will identify the DNA present to determine if it is from tiger (Panthera tigris) or another protected big cat such as lion (Panthera leo), leopard (Panthera pardus), jaguar (Panthera onca), or cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), all of which are being illegally poached and used as tiger substitutes in the production of traditional medicines. The species ID tool will be an easy-to-use, rapid test. Applications of the test include use by law enforcement agencies, civil society groups, conservation and academic organizations to augment monitoring of big cat species products entering the trade. WCS will also continue to build on our in-house molecular and diagnostic expertise and resources to advance our overarching mission to save wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.