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DNA guns and other fantasies August 6, 2014

Posted by stinawp in Uncategorized.
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In my lab, we’ve always joked about how great it would be to have a DNA gun: a gizmo you could “shoot” at a plant or animal that would instantly identify it. So when a professor visiting  here said that someone was testing a machine that would accept a tissue sample and identify it, it set off an animated dinner conversation. (This professor was one of three who were investigating possible sites for a field course.)

Oddly, they were not enthusiastic about this potential breakthrough. One of them was very worried that biology would turn into just knowing how to operate various machines. I think one reason they were unenthusiastic was that they were all vertebrate biologists. Instant identification isn’t a big deal when you’re studying a few relatively large and relatively distinctive species. There are only about 60-something mammal species at Palo Verde, for example. But if you’re studying plants or insects, there are at least 696 species of plants in the park and uncounted numbers of insects. Moreover, plants can be nearly impossible to identify if you don’t have flowers or fruits, and there are entire families of Lepidoptera whose young caterpillars have black heads and green bodies and can’t be identified until they grow larger. If you study mammals or reptiles, a DNA gun can seem lazy. If you study plants or insects, it seems more like a wonderful tool.

I told them, half-seriously, that I was more worried about drones. One thing I’ve always pointed out about my career path is that it’s not outsourceable—if you want to know about the biology of organism Y in location X, you need to hire someone in location X. If drones become widely available and are adapted for field work, that could change. I also find the idea of someone doing “field work” from a desk innately repellant. Field biologists are field biologists in large part because they like wandering around in the woods. And there is a freedom to observe nature and think about your research while walking in the field that I can’t imagine experiencing while piloting a robot from an office.

On the other hand, as soon as I said it, I began to think of all the places that a small drone might go much more easily than a human biologist. The destination that immediately came to mind was the forest canopy. In special cases, biologists contrive to reach the canopy, by climbing, by bucket truck, or by building towers and walkways. Such efforts are always time-consuming, limited, and disrupt the canopy itself. But I can imagine a small drone zipping between branches, or perching on one to give a biologist a long look at something. And if you were studying something small and light, like caterpillars, maybe you could even collect a few.

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