Monday, July 1, 2013

Lab work in the field: Embracing my inner MacGyver

By Benjamin Hochfelder, IRES 2013

Photos, left to right: Lab work in the Grand Tetons, in the hyena research camp in Kenya, and in Omaha, NE.

Before traveling to Kenya to study the fascinating lives of hyenas for the summer, I spent most of my time working with marmoset monkeys and measuring hormones at the Callitrichid Research Center as an undergrad in Omaha, Nebraska. When working in a university lab setting, the main things that can go wrong tend to be the result of human error. It is rare that one worries about where the electricity in the lab is generated or if the freezer is cold or not. Doing lab work in Kenya would actually be the second time I was doing lab work at a field site. Last summer, my wife and I were doing research on little rodents called voles in the Grand Teton National Park. The field site in the Tetons was actually very nice and had all the amenities of a modern laboratory. At our camp in Kenya, instead of a fully equipped lab, there was a newspaper-covered wooden table on a pile of rocks. This table sits outside in a part of Kenya where running water is not one of the luxuries of life, and where a modest amount electricity is generated through solar panels. I was curious about what it would be like to do DNA lab work in a place like this.

I found out just five days after I had arrived at camp. An onslaught of rain made safely driving out into the sticky, muddy landscape an impossibility. Quite conveniently, this day had already been set aside as a “DNA day” at Talek camp. One might ask, what is a DNA day? It refers to an annual day where we extract DNA from the many samples of hyena blood collected during fieldwork. This is done so the DNA can be shipped back to the US for further analysis. Why would we want to look at hyena DNA? One of the most important aspects of studying behavior and interactions between individuals is knowing who is who and who is related to who. Since male hyenas do not provide any obvious parental care, even the best sleuths would have a hard time knowing who the father of each hyena cub is without the help of DNA. By knowing the family relationships between the hyenas, we can better understand the dynamics of their complicated lives.

Extracting DNA from blood is one of the easier tasks done in a standard laboratory setting. I’ve done it before, both in Omaha and at the lab in the Grand Tetons. However, something I have not done before is live in the African bush. As expected, field work is the bread and butter of our days here. But as it turns out, we can and must do a certain amount of traditional lab work as well. While the goal and techniques of this lab work are the same as at home, the details are far from traditional.

One of the biggest differences between this kind of lab work at home and in Kenya is the amount of teamwork involved. In the USA, taking a vile of hyena blood and extracting its genetic information would be a one person job, but here in the bush, it was a nine-person assembly line. 

After finishing the last savory bites of our eggs and toast at 9am, we pulled out a large tank of liquid nitrogen that contained the blood samples. For those who do not know, nitrogen is very cold in its liquid state and is very good at preserving blood and many other things that originate from a living creatures.

While birds chirped and vervet monkeys scurried around in the background, our team spent hours passing plastic tubes back and forth in a style that would make for a good episode of MacGyver (the 80’s fix-anything-with-a-pair-of-tweezers-and-tape TV show). In true MacGyver style, a scenario of constraints led to a steady supply of humor and some decent innovation to the tone of using a cardboard box as a test tube holder when there wasn’t any more room in the styrofoam racks.

As far as I could tell, our efforts were mostly a success. A few days later, the extracted DNA flew over 10,000 miles away from its original home to Michigan State University. Personally, it evokes a bit of awe to think that the molecules of genetic code used to transcribe and translate thousands of proteins while flowing in the blood of a hyena running across the plains of Africa has flown across the Atlantic Ocean frozen inside a tiny plastic tube. It will be exciting to learn what the information revealed can tell us about the relationships among the hyenas from which it came.


Nora said...

Great post, Ben! And thanks for the DNA :)

dee said...

Hey Ben! Good one. Thanks for writing. I hope the rest of your time in the Mara is as much fun and as exciting as the first few weeks were.

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