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  • Saskia Borger

All big things start small

During my time at the Ongava Research Centre (ORC) this year, I worked in the lab analysing biological samples from elephants. The lab is equipped with all the necessary tools and gadgets to carry out DNA extractions and DNA-quality control through the methods of gel electrophoresis, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reactions), and even using a spectrophotometer. Not too shabby for a lab out in the bush!

Gel Image: Assessment of DNA-Quality

I extracted elephant DNA from blood, serum and tissue samples using “QIAGEN - DNeasy Blood & Tissue Extraction Kits”. We assessed the quality of the extracted DNA by gel electrophoresis. As shown in the gel image (right), the bands are clearly visible, and therefore the DNA extracted from blood is of good quality.

An exciting new addition when analysing the DNA quality in the lab was using a PCR method. The PCR is a tool used to amplify specific regions of DNA multiple times. Using a previously established primer pair to identify the parts of DNA to amplify, we ran our PCR with our extracted DNA (tissue, serum, and blood). The PCR successfully amplified the parts of the elephant’s DNA; however, troubleshooting is still needed. Therefore, my extracted DNA stocks will be sent from the ORC lab to the Technical University of Munich (TUM), where I will further analyse and evaluate the results.

Whilst at ORC, I also had the privilege of meeting a lead scientist at WWF-US, Dr Robin Naidoo, who has worked on the movement ecology and migratory behaviour of elephants across Namibia and Botswana. We collected elephant dung in the field and exchanged ideas and experiences.

Workflow: Elephant from field to lab

Meeting Dr Naidoo was a fantastic opportunity. I will be starting my Master’s thesis back home in Germany at TUM. In collaboration with ORC and Namibian partners, I will investigate elephant movement from Etosha National Park to Khaudum National Park. We aim to gain a more in-depth understanding of the movement of elephants between Etosha and Khaudum, to see if genes are shared between groups. If we find the genes are shared between the populations, we will use a modelling approach to identify the most likely corridors. These could be where gene sharing is occurring.

Elephant Scat-Sampling with Dr Robin Naidoo

It was a wonderful experience building up the lab with William on behalf of the TUM, one step at a time. T e ORC lab is now a fully functional unit, ready to be used by many more. Rome was not built in a day, nor was the ORC lab; however, all big things start small!

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