The Brotman Baty Institute Advanced Technology Lab (BAT Lab) will soon be evaluating animal and plant specimens as part of a new UW initiative to help combat international wildlife trafficking.
The initiative will be led by leaders of the new Center for Environmental Forensic Science, a collaboration of researchers; state, federal and international law enforcement agencies; nongovernmental organizations; and the private sector. The objective is “to disrupt and dismantle transnational organized environmental crimes,” according to a February 9 UW News article.
“The combination of government and nongovernmental collaborators, including scientists and NGOs working on the ground, produces a highly experienced, complementary forum that draws upon long-standing histories working in source and transit countries and the associated trust that instills,” said Dr. Samuel Wasser, co-executive director of the new center and a UW professor in the Department of Biology. “This not only enables us to ask the right questions, but also provides unprecedented access to large seizures of environmental contraband, providing the raw material for follow-up investigation needed to answer those questions.”
It’s likely some of those answers will emanate from BBI’s BAT Lab, said Peter Han, the lab’s research coordinator.
“Our work at the BAT Lab intersects with human-wildlife interactions on several fronts,” Han said. “First, we use much of the same technology, the same fundamental techniques for pulling nucleic acids from viruses and bacteria. We also have shared interests, since most epidemic diseases have some element of spillover. Many microbes related to outbreaks have an animal host or recent ancestor, such as Ebola, HIV, SARS-1, West Nile, Malaria, and Lyme Disease. Moreover, improving understanding of cryptic interactions between humans and wildlife, such as wildlife trafficking, and more directly, the pathogens that come with these creatures, improves our understanding of the epidemic landscape.”
BBI’s Dr. Lea Starita, the BAT Lab’s co-lead researcher, believes the work with Center for Environmental Forensic Science, will be an important public service.
“Identifying animal DNA, such as in elephants’ tusks or pangolins’ scales, will help identify and provide evidence to convict wildlife smugglers,” Starita said.
She first met Wasser in 2019. After reading about his work in The New York Times, she invited him to speak at a genetics seminar sponsored by the UW Department of Genome Sciences, after which she, Wasser, Han, and BBI’s Dr. Trevor Bedford met for dinner to discuss their mutual interest in using genetics and genomics as tools to solve significant scientific questions. Informal discussions followed, leading to the BAT Lab’s involvement in the work of Wasser’s new center.
“These partnerships often benefit both teams,” Han said. “We think the University is ripe with similar opportunities for cross pollination between departments. Working together, we can skip reinventing the wheel, and jump right into deeper questions and the answers to those questions.”
NOTE: The journal Nature Human Behavior on February 14 published the paper, “Elephant genotypes reveal the size and connectivity of transnational ivory traffickers” on which Samuel Wasser is the lead author.