Unearthing the DNA of the Jungle with Leeches

Posted on August 18, 2016 by Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

Can leeches help us further scientific research?

It’s an odd question, yes, but it turns out that these little guys can give us fascinating insights into some of the most remote habitats on the planet.

Image: DNA over a view of the rainforest
Source: PIXABAY // PIXABAY

In an ecosystem filled with animals adept at keeping themselves hidden, how can biologists even begin to record the species that call it home?

Sure, you can use camera traps and blinds, or hunt for hair, tracks, or scat, but these methods are both time and labor intensive. As it turns out, there is a faster way to get a glimpse at the forest’s hidden creatures: Leeches.

Before you cringe away, the combination of DNA sequencing technology and leeches provides incredibly rich grounds for study.

For more on this fascinating method, we turn to the American Museum of Natural History whose team was able to conduct an intensive study of some of Cambodia’s most remote places in a little under a month with the help of leeches…

There are two things I find incredible about this story. First, who came up with this idea? It is brilliant! Brilliant in a way that highlights the importance of looking at complex tasks and solving them by asking questions that go back to basics. What do we have most of? How can that resource be helpful to us? Can the leeches that are currently all over me be helpful to this research?

Second, it is absolutely incredible that DNA sequencing has gotten so efficient that we can decern the presence of individual species so quickly and so accurately. A little over 60 years ago we didn’t even know what DNA looked like! And it’s been less than 20 years since the first animal genome was sequenced! Take a moment to think about how far science has come so quickly.

Even if you didn’t come out of today’s article a leech lover, I hope that you can appreciate what an incredible time for innovation we live in! We live on a truly remarkable planet, and I am excited to watch how technology continues to help us appreciate that sentiment in the years to come!

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Stay beautiful & keep laughing!

-Liesl

“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”-Victor Borge