The trick to sequencing DNA in the back of a Land Rover

Beneath the searing heat of a Namibian sun, tiny molecules of DNA are pulled through hundreds of holes on a chip. As they pass through, these molecules generate an electric current like minuscule flashes of lightning. Recording, transmitting and making sense of these imperceptible storms is a small team of scientists from the University of Oxford, who hope that this new form of DNA sequencing can make waves in the fight against the spread of malaria.

“Traditionally, DNA sequencing has needed large machines, which range from about the size of a fridge to a small car,” says Dr George Busby, Senior Research Scientist and Expedition Leader of the Mobile Malaria Project. “Nanopore sequencing technology is a new way of sequencing DNA that can be done on a small machine, about the size of a chocolate bar.”

Mobile Malaria took a team of three scientists in a Land Rover across 6,300 kilometres, crossing the vastly different landscapes and cultures of Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. Working with local scientists, research institutes and governments, the team explored how this new form of mobile DNA sequencing can be utilised in countries affected by malaria.

Two men working on a DNA sequencer in AfricaTwo men working on a DNA sequencer in Africa
Mobile Malaria team working next to a Land RoverMobile Malaria team working next to a Land Rover

A global killer

Spread by mosquitoes, malaria affected approximately 219 million people in 2017. Of the 500,000 people who died from the disease, 90% of these were in Sub-Saharan Africa. The parasite that causes the disease can become immune to anti-malarial pills, which is why DNA sequencing can be used to measure the effect of various malaria treatments.

Through its Adventure Sponsorship program, Kathmandu supported the Mobile Malaria project, which tested the sequencing technology on the ground and trained researchers and those working in the field in Africa.

Man sequencing DNA in the back of a carMan sequencing DNA in the back of a car

“We found that many of the teams we met were already very skilled in basic lab skills, so were able to learn how to use the machines very quickly,” Dr Busby continues. “What this means is that the scientists we worked with have the confidence to develop research using this technology in the future.”

“We're not the first to use these machines in Africa, but to date, the majority of field deployment of the technology has involved sequencing DNA from viruses like Ebola, Dengue and Zika, which are less complex than either the malaria parasite or its mosquito vector.”

Exploring a kaleidoscope of cultures and landscapes

Conducting tests within a Land Rover, the Mobile Malaria team drove across Africa to see how malaria was treated in areas that were affected differently. Beyond the researchers that they worked with, the team also experienced the striking differences between the four countries they visited.

“Each country we visited had a different feel. Namibia felt vast and ecologically diverse. Zambia was luscious and green. Tanzania was bustling and colourful and Kenya was hot, humid and busy,” says Dr Busby.

Land Rover on a roadLand Rover on a road

“In Namibia you only really get malaria in the north of the country, and even there it is not really common. The questions that Namibians need to answer to control malaria are consequently different from Zambia and Tanzania where malaria transmission is greater.”

While Dr Busby believes all scientists are driven by an innate curiosity, regardless of where they live, the researchers he met with in Africa had their own particular connection to malaria.

“Many of the scientists we worked with had themselves suffered from malaria, usually when they were children. Whilst I don't think that this personal experience was the main motivation of their research, having had the disease and knowing many, many people who have suffered from malaria clearly allowed the researchers to remain focused on the task of controlling and eliminating malaria.”

Travel can be a two-way street

Dr Busby and those from the Mobile Malaria team were conscious of their role during the trip. They explored how they could contribute as much as possible to developing mobile DNA sequencing within the countries they visited, rather than focusing on what data they could collect for their own research. They purposely decided not to take back any samples to the UK, focusing their work on using those samples taken in the field to help train scientists in Africa. 

While the management of malaria in these countries can be aided by access to mobile DNA sequencing, the Mobile Malaria team itself gained a lot from the trip, especially on a personal level. Dr Busby was humbled by the welcome they received along the way.

“These sorts of trips require months of planning, getting all the cogs to click into gear at the same time. It was certainly stressful at times, but ultimately incredibly satisfying that we managed to get the trip to work without any major hiccoughs. And I always enjoy meeting lots of different interesting people on the route. It never ceases to amaze me that you can turn up somewhere unannounced and immediately find friends who will help and look after you.”

“You are always a guest. Wherever you travel to, it's important to behave like one. By learning from the people and places that we visit and sharing our different experiences with people as we travel, our interactions can be a two-way street. Interacting with people along the journey meant that we engaged with people throughout. So, respect and purpose are key to travel.”

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