eDNA project finds bad guys with the help of “The Good Guys”

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Article written by Compliance Division

Dr. Alejandro collecting dirt samples from vaccum cleaners used by the biosecurity officers responding to the Khapra beetle detection at the Good Guys (Image Courtesy: Dr. Thomas Wallenius, DAWE).

Earlier on The Seed, we reported on the success of using eDNA to detect fish pests in the water. This time we move our focus to land to detect the notorious Khapra beetle from dirt samples.

World-first e-DNA detection

Khapra beetle (Trogoderma granarium) is a listed national priority pest infecting grains, seeds, rice and dried food. It can cause huge losses to our economy if it becomes established. In August 2020, detections were made at two The Good Guys retail outlets in Canberra. This led to a rapid biosecurity eradication response by the department.

Our own entomologist, Dr Thomas Wallenius, teamed up with Dr. Alejandro Trujillo-Gonzalez, the lead researcher in the project. Together, they examined the area for the presence of Kharpa beetle and recovered filters from vacuum cleaners used at the site.

Khapra DNA was identified from the dirt samples taken from the vacuum cleaners, a world first detection using eDNA in biosecurity. The real-time detection was made in under 90 minutes and then validated using the Biomeme Franklin Thermocycler, a portable device that is being tested in the project.

Dr. Uday Divi , one of the project leaders at DAWE, said ‘This is a breakthrough in developing a targeted, portable, cheap and accurate tool for biosecurity officers. It allows them to detect a range of high risk pests, diseases and invasive species that could be entering the country’.

Further applications

While the quest continues for the application of eDNA across a range of biosecurity pest and disease pathways. The enormous potential for the technology across a variety of applications including environment and biodiversity assessments has been realised.

Some of the current project priorities include developing a quick and accurate test to detect exotic invasive ants, myrtle rust, and monitoring for white-nose disease in bats from soil samples. This work is being done in collaboration with the office of the Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer.

As the project expands, more priority species including honeybees and seed viruses are expected to be added for testing with the technology. The project aims to develop a single and multi-species detection assays for faster, cheaper, and more reliable testing that can be implemented across our biosecurity system.

Progress update

So far, we have shown that this technology works to make rapid and accurate detections in the field. We have made immense progress, but the following questions are still being addressed:

  • Will it work?
  • Will it be more efficient?
  • Will it improve the service we offer our clients?
  • Will it be better than what we are doing now?

Next time on The Seed, we hope to report on its application in Australian biosecurity operations such as container screening and environmental surveillance.

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