Getting DNA

Well the Nam Kading Samples are here, so let the processing being.

First step… Get the poo out. 

So in my last post I showed you how samples get to me. But here’s the up close and personal. Samples are shipped to me in bags, hundreds upon hundred of bags. I’m pretty sure we keep the ziploc company in business all on our own. From there I go about sealing them for storage. As you can see (above) I am all about repetition when it comes to sealing these things shut. Each is in a tube, with a cap screwed on, with a layer of parafilm (a material sort of like plastic wrap with some crazy holding abilities) and then the whole thing is taped shut. Mostly because I don’t want to loose any of my sample… and partly because its pretty gross if its leaky.

Step Two… Get the DNA Out

There is actually two kinds of DNA in your cells, and I want both. You have nuclear DNA (the one you always hear about, Some from your mom and some from you dad) and you have Mitochondrial DNA (all from mom). For every cell you only have two strands of Nuclear DNA, so its a little harder to get at then Mitochondrial DNA where every cell has about 1000-2000 mitochondria, and each of those has its own DNA.

But getting it out is actually a process in itself. 20160627_200912 [254959]

To summarize quickly, first the samples get to spend the night in a nice warm bath that gently rocks them back and forth. Sounds peaceful right? But in reality they’re in a solution that is tearing them apart. Ripping open the cells the DNA calls home.

Day two, basically just a lot of cleaning. We spin it over and over again in lots of different chemicals that eat away everything we don’t want and in the end… DNA.


Step Three… Replicate20160628_142609 [254958]

Like I mentioned before, there are only 2 strands of DNA in every cell. That’s not a lot to work with. So we replicate it, so there’s billions! Its actually a lot easier than you would think. Honestly, you just put the DNA in a thermocycler with all sorts of chemicals one would normally find in the body. A thermocycler is essentially  a system of hot water baths that can rip the DNA a part and build new DNA. Its also pretty much the only way to see if everything you did previously actually worked, so potentially we could be doing all this work for nothing….

This is also the step where you will see me pacing around the Lab anxiously waiting the 3 hours it takes to be completed!

Research is fun right?

Step Four…. Did it work?

All this work and you still have no clue if it actually worked. So we run a gel! A gel can sort your DNA by size and thanks to some hardcore toxic chemicals, make it glow (if its actually there that is). I’ve been running 15 samples today to make sure everything worked and……

text4138-2-9-0-1-0-9-2Eh…Didn’t really get what we were hoping for… Although those are some pretty negatives ahaha


The Case of the Missing Paperwork

The Dung Samples have finally made their way out of Laos and into the US. They were supposed to arrive “within four business days” but US customs decided to hold onto them in Alaska for a week. It turns out that the paperwork allowing biological samples,

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This is every researchers worst nightmare when shipping your samples internationally.
especially one from an Endangered and highly trafficked species such as an Asian Elephant, had gone missing. And US Customs was getting ready to ship the samples back to Laos! Well luckily they were finally able to get a hold of us and we were able to send permits and such things.

So after a week long vacation in Alaska, the Dung is in Missouri! Yay.

Come Monday morning, I was pacing the lab like a madman waiting for their arrival. And as luck would have it, after I went on a hunt for them in the mailroom(s), they showed up at my lab door in a giant locked bin.

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I have to admit, I seriously underestimated how many samples there really were.


Yes, 305 individually wrapped tubes of Dung (mixed with a solution to make them last longer), so liquid dung. Needless to say, I took up some floor space for the majority of the day during inventory. 20160627_173605 [254963]

As we begin processing, we’ll see if these samples are even worth their weight in shipping. But soon we will know all their secrets mwhaha….

Oh Dung. Where art thou?

We’re getting samples shipped in from Nam Kading National Protected Area in Laos!

Yes you can mail frozen poo internationally. Crazy right? So as we sit and wait for them to show up at my door, let me thank my wonderful friends at the Wildlife Conservation Society, who collected them back in 2012 and have had them on hold ever since.

Those guys over as WCS are pretty awesome though. They’ve been setting up camera traps in Nam Kading for a few years now and have captured some amazing photos take a look.

Pretty cool eh? These photos are amazing at showing the wildlife diversity in the area, no wonder this area is protected!

But where are the…. what’s this? Elephants! Its a little harder to get an entire elephant on camera. Although, they managed it a few times with a little calf.

So as we wait for samples to arrive, at least we have some photos from our potential dung providers!

the Other Elephant

Indian elephant herd moving through forest

The gigantic powerful elephant with gigantic tusks waving its enormous ears to cool in the Savanna heat? Ya, that’s not it.

This is the Other elephant.

Although Asian Elephants are amazing in their own right plenty of people aren’t aware they even exist. Asian elephants are adorable little forest dwellers with teeny ears and funny looking foreheads. I say little, yet these guys can grow up to 9 feet at their shoulders and come in at a whopping 5.5 Tons. They’re just small in comparison to their African cousins. While on the subject, Asian elephants are actually more closely related to the now extinct Woolly Mammoth than they are to either species (yes, there’s two) of African Elephant.

There’s some pretty big differences. Unless you ask my grandmother, who I’m convinced still thinks I work in Africa despite countless conversations.

I work with Asian Elephants. While they are common enough in North American Zoos, most people’s experience with this type of elephant actually comes from the Circus.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants perform during FUNundrum in New York. EMMANUEL DUNLAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

While I can’t say I’m in support of Elephants being used in circuses if it is what got you interested in elephants in the first place then all the more power to you.
And while I’m not here to sell you on animal rights and welfare (which you should always be aware of), Elephant conservation is actually pretty important.

Once upon a time, Asia was dominated by a landscape filled with elephants. Laos in particular was once referred to as the “Land of a Million Elephants”. The entire southern half of the Asian continent was filled with these gigantic animals. But in falling in tradition with most endangered species, humans came along and ruined everything.

The historical distribution of Asian elephants vs current distribution. Pretty small don’t ya think?

Elephants are big animals, and require vast amounts of land to live off of. With increasing human development, elephant were pushed into small heavily separated areas. Several sanctuaries exist across the landscape, but it’s a dangerous world out there. Place one toe out of line and your shot or poached. Elephant “parts” are used for pretty much everything, but the biggest demand is of course ivory. The ivory trade is pretty well known at this point and yet it remains legal in several Asian countries. While African Elephants dominate the ivory trade (in this case not a great thing to win at) the trade still hits Asian elephants pretty hard.

Another huge problem facing elephants is their stomach. Well, not directly at least. Elephants love to eat, and they’ll eat just about everything. A favorite though? Anything grown by people. A single elephant can rip through an entire field of banana trees in a single night. If you’re a banana farmer with your entire livelihood dependent on those trees, your worst enemy is a hungry elephant. Elephants and People die every year from fighting with one another over land and food.

I realize 90% of the things I say are sarcastic and goofy, well here’s that 10% serious moment. So how do we fix it?  There’s a million different ways. You can be like Leonardo DiCaprio advocating against Palm Oil plantations in Indonesia and starting a gigantic foundation to help protect elephants worldwide (I don’t know about you but I wish I had that kind of money). You can go into research like myself and countless others. Or you can control the market. Don’t buy ivory. Don’t buy into those elephant tourist vacations in Thailand. Don’t place any sort of demand on taking more elephants out of the wild. It really is a buyers market. If you don’t want it, they won’t take it.

I realize this post is long and kinda heavy, but hey we got that out of the way. Now you all have a nice background in Asian elephants 🙂

Elephant Conservation