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Makeshift Lab in Ecuador Helps Frogs

DNA extraction in HotelA few months ago I got the incredible opportunity to help bring the Amphibian Disease Laboratory’s molecular diagnostic capabilities abroad. Our amphibian disease laboratory head, veterinary pathologist Allan Pessier and I, along with several other veterinarians and conservation biologists, were invited to speak at an International Veterinary Medicine of Amphibians seminar in Quito, Ecuador. It was amazing to be able to share our lab’s diagnostic techniques with eager veterinary students and biologists.

While packing for our trip abroad, I thought of everything we would need to have our “mobile lab” functional. Even though I had all the equipment and re-agents we needed, I could not prepare for the location where I would perform these experiments.

When we arrived at the seminar location, I was relieved to see that the area where we would be performing our amphibian disease testings at was a veterinary clinical lab. Here we had counter space, power outlets, and refrigerator space. However, the molecular testings take time to run (about 2.5 hours), and the real-time PCR machine I was utilizing could only manage 48 samples at once. I ran into time limitations of how long we had to be in the facility. We needed to make sure we ran all the samples given to us by the animal facilities before we went back to the US. I had to improvise and wound up turning my hotel room into a makeshift laboratory. I had an extraction area (bedside table), my re-agent master mix preparation area (the dressing table), and my DNA loading area and instrument area (another bedside table). But do I use to keep my re-agents cool? Why, a foam cooler and ice cubes purchased from a nearby market! I extracted my samples, set up the assay instrument, and went to sleep with the humming of the real-time instrument next to my bed.

What did I learn from this amazing experience? That you can only prepare so much when traveling abroad and that you need to be ready to think on your toes and be prepared to do your experiments in not-so-ideal environments.

The outcome of the trip was most rewarding. Our hours of traveling allowed these students and biologists to utilize techniques that aren’t easily available to their institutions. The testing results were very helpful not only to the animal facilities themselves but also to our laboratory to understand the amphibian disease present in Ecuador. These are the types of relationships we would like to have with amphibian facilities across the world to help monitor the health of current and future amphibian populations.

Jennifer Burchell is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Counting Mosquitoes.