Saturday, April 14, 2018

Wildlife Forensics: The Use of DNA to Catch a Smuggler

Totoaba, the Mexican fish that is quoted of higher value than cocaine.
When one thinks of forensic science, thoughts often roam to TV shows and murder mystery novels. Few think of forensic science being applied to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and their efforts to catch poachers and smugglers. Well, in Ashland, OR there is a full forensic lab dedicated to such efforts in crimes against wildlife. This lab consists of departments dedicated to chemistry, morphology, pathology, criminalistics, and of course genetics. With the use of genetic examination, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is able to distinguish when seized products have come from CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) endangered listed species. They've even developed ways to even extract DNA from the leather of a handbag.

In 2013, the lab was faced with a task: to identify a swim bladder as belonging to the endangered totoaba or not. With the use of mitochondrial DNA, an altered swim bladder can be identified as a totoaba by distinguishing it from the next closest relative. But what is mitochondrial DNA? It's DNA that is found in the mitochondria of the cell, thousands of mitochondria per cell have this DNA that contains 37 genes. In 2013, this lead the Fish and Wildlife Service to prosecute Shong Shen Zhen for smuggling the swim bladders of totoaba from Mexico into the US to be sold on the black market.

The use of genetics in forensic science is imperative to solving crime, but we can't forget about the crimes against wildlife and biodiversity as well. The US Fish and Wildlife Service forensic lab is making strides and opening new windows to forensic science in wildlife protection , and it's only the beginning.

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